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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Women's Hockey 3, Connecticut 0

Lining up
Newfangled offensive trios click for Friars

With an inherently brittle two-goal advantage favoring the Friars in the 17th minute of yesterday’s third period, Connecticut’s longtime top gun, Dominique Thibault, lassoed a fugitive puck in the slot and promptly engaged in a one-on-one staredown with one of the Huskies’ principal obstacles –Genevieve Lacasse.

Upon Thibault’s failure to pluck the disc off the ice, though, the radiant rookie opportunistically clamped it down, freezing the clock at 3:19. UConn skipper Heather Linstad promptly summoned a timeout, after which she forked out goaltender Alex Garcia (20 saves) in favor of the classic, last-ditch six-pack attack.

“She really didn’t challenge me that much,” Lacasse reflected. “I was expecting a much bigger move, but instead she just kind of left it there. So, I think (the save) really gave our team momentum. If it had gone in, it might have been a much different game, but I think we still would have pulled through.”

Come what may, Lacasse (18 saves) would be needed thrice more to foil stabs by Cristin Allen, Michelle Binning, and Thibault yet again. But not before her loyal praetorian guards made haste off the post-timeout draw to tune to vacant Husky cage, courtesy a center ice roller from Mari Pehkonen, with 2:56 to spare. That goal served to solidify a 3-0 Providence triumph before 286 spectators at Schneider Arena, pole-vaulting the Friars into the Hockey East semifinals for the seventh time in as many years.

Whether it was more a matter of Lacasse –who finished the season with two savory shutouts and only three goals-against in four encounters with the Huskies- having their number or just a flustering lack of explicit fury on their part, UConn’s offense couldn’t stash away any of the spontaneous, fleeting rushes characteristic of this rivalry, characteristic of playoff hockey, and necessary to tip the scale.

Conversely, the Friars’ top two lines –newly reconstructed as late as last weekend- clicked in stimulating spurts. Pehkonen and Finnish countrywoman Laura Veharanta –who flank Ashley Cottrell on the starting trinity- collaborated on the empty netter for their second respective points of the day, some 56 minutes after they had paired up for the eventual decider.

Off the initial draw in the opening frame, left defender Brittany Simpson vacuumed the remnants of Cottrell’s win and shipped it to Pehkonen along the blue line. Pehkonen bustled her way into the far corner and thrust a centering feed to Veharanta on Garcia’s porch. Whiffing on her first try, Veharanta slugged home her own rebound and her six-game scoring drought was gone in 16 seconds.

“That’s what great players do, but I really think it has to do with our preparation,” said head coach Bob Deraney. “We were ready. We learned last week from Boston College, that you have to be ready to play right from the very beginning, and we were.”

PC had not drawn first blood in any of their last four regular season games. And, quirkily enough, they had surrendered the icebreaker to the Eagles 16 seconds into their last home venture, a foul 5-1 falter.

“You know you have a good team when you learn lessons instead of make mistakes,” said Deraney. “What I mean by that is a mistake is when something happens to you and you don’t make a correction. A lesson is when something happens to you, you correct it, and then you build upon it. So it was an exciting way to start the game.”

But possibly a deceitful tone-setter. Already down, 2-0, in the shooting gallery, Connecticut proceeded to run up a 9-7 lead in that category at the first intermission. And for the remainder of the day, the contesting defenses brandished laser-beamed twigs to snuff out any chances of an overwhelming flurry.

Even when the Friars sprinkled six unanswered shots between the fourth and 12th minute of the second period, their expressed priority was keeping Lacasse undisturbed.

“Obviously, having offense is a great thing,” said sophomore winger Alyse Ruff, who would eventually insert an insurance tally midway through the third. “But I think we’re more of a defensive team. It starts from the goal out, so we’re all about making sure the puck stays out of our net first and working our way from there.”

Ruff’s gravy goal fell at the 10:10 mark of the closing frame, at which point the Huskies had gone more than nine minutes without pelting Lacasse while confining the Friars to merely two tests of Garcia. Second line centerpiece Erin Normore took a counterclockwise tour around the back of the cage and fed Ruff –positioned most identically to Veharanta on the previous scoring play- for a one-timer.

This coming only a week after Ruff had aided Normore’s equalizer in a pivotal shootout win over BC.

“I think it’s just from everyone having played with each other this entire year,” said Ruff, who not long ago complemented an inseparable trinity with Cottrell and Veharanta. “One minor switch isn’t a big deal. Obviously Laura and Mari are playing great together, and I absolutely love playing on my line.”

“Sometimes you can get stale,” added Deraney. “And so, when you make just little adjustments based on looking at strengths and weaknesses and what’s going on out there, and the chemistry, and which players would fit in well with each other, you figure that a little tweak of the lines can make a difference, and it did today.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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