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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Hockey

Ruff the nub of the offense
Distinctions lie in balance in productivity, maturity

Having officially inched beyond the halfway mark of her collegiate career as the PC women commence preseason business, Alyse Ruff, above any of her front line colleagues, stands out for her well-balanced mix of experience, durability, and three-zone aptitude.

The trust her twig has earned is such that, during the early phases of a pre-game warm-up, she has assumed the role of celestial stopper Genevieve Lacasse’s personal puck-provider, flicking those all-important game time coffee shots from between the hash marks.

Granted, there are also three seniors slated to resume their own offensive assignments. And sophomores Laura Veharanta (31) and Ashley Cottrell (21) each bested her in the point column last year. But in terms of importance, timing sits right up there with quantity, and that is one aspect Ruff has rapidly and all but peerlessly mastered.

Half of Ruff’s 10 sophomore strikes went down as deciders, four of those being game-winners, one other an equalizer. On top of that, she pitched in some breath-pumping insurance goals, most notably in the Hockey East quarterfinal against Connecticut, when she granted the Friars’ a more assuring 2-0 edge with less than 10 regulation minutes to spare.

In all, half of the 20 points Ruff charged up last year were either in the third period or within the final five minutes of the second. On thirteen occasions, she had a hand either in sawing a two-goal deficit in half, pulling even, or pulling ahead.

Furthermore, four of her goals were sprinkled over 26 total power play shots for a team-best .154 percentage in that situation. And amongst all PC returnees, only Veharanta (15) had more power play points than Ruff (7). The two sandwiched a foursome of seniors in Erin Normore, Katy Beach, Brittany Simpson, and Mari Pehkonen, which would now signal a call for hefty reinforcements in the 5-on-4 guild.

Naturally, Ruff and Veharanta –who combined to polish off a dozen of the Friars’ 31 power play conversions last year- are the starting points for that project. First impressions (and that’s really all there is at this time) would call for each to be penciled in as the base for one of two regular units, each thereby branching out their wealth through established abilities to both initiate and finish.

These particular brands of production are a testament to patience and poise, traits that are a tad less common in a player’s younger years. As a junior this year, Ruff will be joined by classmate Jean O’Neill, three seniors, and then seven underclassmen in the offensive department. And so far, she has played in all 72 possible career games, a claim that cannot be shared by any of the seniors or any of her fellow juniors.

As it generally expected of any college puckster with a budding identity, Ruff had a rather one-dimensional look as a rookie, using her bloodhound instincts in the dirty-nose areas to ultimately concoct 14 goals and 19 points. Last year, she both grew to balance her productivity between 10 firsthand strikes and 10 helpers while also growing to demonstrate noticeable defensive proficiency, earning her a fixed position on the penalty killing brigade.

And because one’s progression is never finished, now would be the time for Ruff to think of upping her season point total closer to the 30 plateau and continuing to help foster her relatively young colleagues. She has already accepted a little credit for that, citing when she lined up with Cottrell and Veharanta, who emerged respectively as topmost playmakers and finishers for the Friars.

But even the top gun Veharanta, for all of her own output, goal-assist balance, and clear-cut knack for timely connections, brandished a minor blemish in the stretch run when she went pointless for the final six ventures of the regular season. Cottrell similarly managed a mere two assists in that same critical block of time after logging 19 points in her first 28 games. More generally, everyone else on the depth chart is just hunting for their first assertive spark.

And as evidenced through much of PC’s last game-by-game scroll, more of that aforementioned insurance is a must. There was a fistful of nights when the Friars would plant an initial 1-0 or 2-1 edge, only to spill invaluable points when they let the opposition nip back to usurp the win. There would be less chance of that happening if they could get more comfortable with the dual task of nabbing, defending, and augmenting a lead.

Translation: there would be more regular cushions if more critical plays were nailed at the right moments. More individual strikers following Ruff’s tactical example would make that possible.

So look for her to assume a pilot’s position –however overt or covert it may appear- in the Friars’ strike force this year.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com