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Sunday, September 6, 2009

This way to Eleventh Heaven

Surely, all seasoned and fatalistic Friartownies have made an internal note of the ostensible alignment of stars.

Bob Deraney is embarking upon his 11th campaign behind the PC women's hockey bench. And, in accordance with one of its perennial checklist items, the program is thirsting after its 11th postseason conference pennant in its history.

Naturally, no concerned partisans would dare to divulge that tidbit of trivia, so this author has done it for them. But before anyone unleashes a premature wrongful jinx lawsuit, perhaps one would prefer to knock on Sherwood, settle down to enjoy the forthcoming season, and consider the following (thematic) list of 11 talking points towards a fulfilling Friars' campaign:

1. Set the tone early. Any longer-tenured Free Press reader is bound to ask, "Just when is this batch of biscuits going to grow stale, and thereby be liberated from this scribe's virtual stick swing?" The simple answer: when someone in control of the action assertively swats one of those biscuits into the basket and gives Providence a statistically satisfying October.

The plain fact is that a solid start -especially given the program's new wave approach with a chock-filled first month game schedule- is just the start of a pleasant kind of domino theory. For next ought to come a reckonable national record; then comes a more stable and prominent posture in the polls; then comes added legit confidence for the rest of the ride.

And note this: by the time November is over, the Friars will have already consumed half of their 34-game regular season slate, including nine Hockey East contests and 12 home matches. Better go get the points while the getting's good.

2. Build a tower of power. Too often last season, especially in the climactic weeks, the Friars decisively out-disciplined the opposition, only to settle for at best level power play production for each side. By season's end, the collectively more reckless opponents had a .145 conversion rate versus the Friars' .142 median. PC must reward itself more and create a more positive disproportion in this department. That's kind of a habit amongst the certified elites.

3. Retain rigidity in net. Genevieve Lacasse was irreproachable from start to finish as she came to campus and laid claim to the starting job, followed by a hugful of hardware at season's end. Her new challenge shall be little more than preserving the status quo for as long as she is here. She need not feel obliged to duplicate or top the precise pristine data of her rookie campaign, but she will be relied on to bring continued stability to the rink's most vital patch of ice.

4. Win more wishbones. Deraney has notably and nobly cited this goal in the past. The Friars always want to get the better of a conference cohabitant in every three-game season series, and last year, they were initially four-for-four in that regard. But then they slipped against Northeastern, New Hampshire, and Boston College and finished at 4-3 for a virtual series win percentage of .571, and their league record of 11-8-2 appropriately reflected that.

Ultimately, regardless of how much they take from whom, something between 13 and 15 conference wins is a sufficient goal (plus, couple that with at least seven interleague victories and life in the polls gets so much easier).

5. Spike up the scoring. This is an issue fraternal to the aforementioned power play item and quite relevant to the last point concerning season series. While PC indisputably heaved all of their ammo with all of their might at phenom Florence Schelling in three encounters with Northeastern last year, the elastic Swiss stopper simply had a bottomless tank of stamina to steal two out of three wins for her club. The inherently shallow Huskies thus prevailed in a tactical tilt of obsessive-defensiveness.

Then again, the core of the Providence offense was relatively new to this level last year, so more on that later.

6. Protect the house. Since the rising seniors were freshmen, PC's annual regular season home records have read as follows: 10-5-1, 10-7-0, 8-8-1. A reverse U-turn is in order for this season, for again, the majority of their home games will be set aside before Thanksgiving. That will be the time to both perch themselves well ahead of the .500 fence and to spawn consistent local fan interest.

And hey, they just might end up garnering hospitality responsibilities when the tournament rolls around. In case of that, wouldn't they like to prepare by giving their domain a more harrowing vibe?

7. Fear not unchartered waters. After the Friars were eliminated from last year's Hockey East semifinal via host New Hampshire, ex-A captain and newly tapped assistant coach Erin Normore admitted up front, "We were a little afraid" to start their venture through the oft-treacherous depths of Lake Whittemore, which was also the first post-season road game for seven active players.

Suffice it to say, regardless of the implications, not an ounce of time can be lost on any game for any reason. A team cannot play its way into comfort in a hostile venue, and a contending team has to assert itself when wearing black as much as it does when decked out in white. After all, on the flipside of a point made in Item 6, the Friars might not claim hosting privileges come March. In that event, they could use a comfortable recent history in whatever barn they must visit.

8. Coming of age. Sophomores Laura Veharanta and Ashley Cottrell left off with instant, booming impressions as net-stuffers and playmakers, respectively. And classmates Kate Bacon -who ranked second behind Veharanta with 111 registered shots on net- and Abby Gauthier started to break through in the latter weeks. A little more work in the areas of shooting accuracy and poise under pressure, combined with even more seasoned input from juniors Alyse Ruff and Jean O'Neill, can go a long way in the push to replenish the depth chart.

The same goes for the backline with juniors Leigh Riley and Amber Yung expected to aid senior Colleen Martin in the continued development of Jen Friedman and Christie Jensen.

9. Goaltending insurance. While it is not quite impossible, no one should count on consuming the whole goaltending pie of an NCAA season and sparkling for the entire ride.

Accordingly, with Danielle Ciarletta and Jen Smith both gone, it will be entirely up to junior Christina England -who has yet to take one slurp of regulation game action- to grant Lacasse an occasional breather and to prove her own legs fresh rather than stale and bench-weary.

10. Keep everyone healthy. With 13 forwards, seven defenders, and two stoppers, the Friars are frankly limited to one spare body per position. And while their live-in neighbors over at the Tim Army Corps have recently suggested that a personnel overload might do blunders more than wonders, their allotment leaves little room for serious injury or error.

Ideally, spares are there to grant their teammates sorely needed gasps of rest and keep everybody reasonably fresh (see Item 9). But barring any long-term ailments, that is exactly the function they shall fulfill, which may work all the more to PC's benefit. The more everyone is on her toes and the more useful everyone feels, the better the morale.

11. Think only of the present. This generation of Friars has had trouble igniting a good, classic hot streak, a difficulty that can be attributed to psychological fetters that come with letting recent results go to one's head or with peering too far down the road instead of focusing on the two points at stake that specific night.

Only once -between Thanksgiving and Christmas two years ago- have any active Friars savored a winning streak longer than three games and the program has not seen a supra-.500 February since 2004, making the final month of its season frightfully akin to October. While it is important to be mindful of each game's importance (they all count for something or other), rationally pacing oneself from the start is the key to a smooth, strong finish.

There is really no sense in spilling psychological energy over when the team's performance "peaks." Rather, it should be all about sculpting a sound overall track record, followed by making an impression on the league, followed by whittling one's way to a coveted first-round bye.

Once, and only once that brew is finished should hardware be at the forefront of anyone's mind. And for them, incidentally, it needn't so much be looked upon as a quest for their 11th conference crown; just the 2010 Hockey East crown.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com