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Friday, January 30, 2009

Hockey Log

Searing, seething Huskies on horizon

Yet another potential battle for long-term bubble preservation shall occupy the PC women this weekend as they engage in a home-and-home series with nationally eighth-ranked Connecticut, starting with tomorrow afternoon’s 1:00 draw at Schneider Arena.

And yet another score of statistical twins will confront them. Their sturdier national collateral aside, the Huskies trail the Friars by a point in the league leaderboard. Both programs’ mid-to-upper-class posture in the standings is reflected in most every major category from defense to discipline to special teams’ net.

And yet again, it shall be the same, condensed mental methodology.

“Everyone needs to be focused on and off the ice,” said junior defender Colleen Martin. “We’ve grown in the past months, and we know what it takes to be successful. So as long as we’re all focused on the one goal –and we all have it in our hearts- we can play our best hockey that we can at this time.”

No one, though, has flaunted their recent growth or savored success quite as conspicuously as the opposing Huskies. Dating back to the final week of November, UConn has deftly woven a hot string of 11 wins in 12 tries, enhancing a once-.500 record of 6-6-2 to 17-7-2.

And the same old acetylene suspects are anchoring the near-constant pillage. Concomitant with the program’s collective tear, junior co-captain Dominique Thibault has an active scoring streak of 10 games –albeit interposed by her holiday Eurotrip to the MLP Cup with the Canadian U-22 team- during which she has kindled 11 goals and 15 points.

Thibault’s classmate and linemate Michelle Binning has put her name to 10 of the last dozen scoresheets, charging up a 6-6-12 log in that space of time.

Cristin Allen, the WHEA’s highest-scoring defensive player, has 10 points in her last 11 ventures and a 5-16-21 transcript on the year.

Given that bill of talking points, there lies little-to-nada new on the Friars’ answer key against their western border rivals.

“You have it approach it just like every other game. You can’t take any teams for granted,” said Martin. “They’re playing well, we’re playing well. This is probably our best hockey that we’ve been playing (all year). So as long as we can continue to build on last weekend (a home-and-home sweep of Boston University), probably our best weekend and just continue on to this weekend.

“They’re a strong, physical team. (But) we just need to play them like we would play any other team.”

Mirroring masks
This weekend’s projected goaltending matchup of Genevieve Lacasse and Brittany Wilson equals stern grounds for a quintessentially titanic tilt in the cage, not unlike what they presented at Schneider Arena in mid-November, when the Friars tipped the scale on a late third period 5-on-3 segment towards a 2-0 triumph.

That marked the Friar freshman’s first career shutout, a collection she has since swollen to five, including three in as many Saturday home ventures this month. The UConn senior counters with five eggs of her own, including back-to-back zaps on Northeastern last week.

As of yesterday, against conference cohabitants, Lacasse and Wilson have four shutouts apiece, trailing only Boston College blocker Molly Schaus’ six. Lacasse is tops under the headings of both goals-against average (1.10) and save-percentage (.958). Wilson falls in second and third in those respective categories, brandishing a GAA of 1.26 and stoppage rate of .939.

Wilson and Lacasse are the two winningest stoppers on the WHEA schedule with respective percentages of .850 and .800.

And finally, they are the only Hockey East goalies with any assists on the year, Wilson having scraped out three, Lacasse one.

Quick Feeds: With 127 and 118 respective shots on net, Thibault and Binning are the league’s second and third most frequent puckslingers. Binning also leads all Hockey Easterners with seven game-winning goals…Live video streaming will be offered for tomorrow’s game via friars.com…Tomorrow’s clash between PC and UConn’s Skating Sororities will likely wrap up within an hour of the 4:00 tip-off between their male basketball peers at Gampel Pavilion.…Part II of this series –slated to commence at 1 p.m. Sunday at Freitas Ice Forum- will be UConn’s day to observe the third annual Skating Strides Against Breast Cancer charity. The Friars will subsequently observe the event in their barn a week from tonight against Northeastern, as will the Hub Huskies the following evening when the teams tangle at Matthews Arena next Saturday night.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hockey Log

Depth short, but diverse

Assuming the current disturbances of a league-wide obsessive-defensive approach scoop up speed and cyclical force, the rest of the PC women’s season promises to see fewer pens and more tumbleweeds blow across the rows and columns of their scoresheets.

The forecast calls for conditions inclined to induce widespread toe numbness in goaltenders and an epidemic of goal judges losing proper feeling in their thumbs due to inactivity.

Hockey East as a whole saw six shutouts in eight league contests over the past weekend. The best aurora of red lights amongst those games was New Hampshire’s 5-1 throttling of Maine at the Whittemore Center Saturday.

For the Friars part, in a cumulative 4-1 final spaced over a home-and-home sweep of Boston University, the trinity of beacons comprising the first line –i.e. Ashley Cottrell, Alyse Ruff, and Laura Veharanta- were muzzled for the entire ride. (Granted, though, Ruff was initially credited with an assist on Jean O’Neill’s first period equalizer on Sunday before that point was transplanted to Colleen Martin’s resume. Ruff would have been statistically rewarded if there were a three-assist allotment).

But, to their credit, others have stepped in to plug the modest offering of open slivers. And just enough to have inched Providence into a snug squeeze in the upper-middle half of the standings.

O’Neill, trying to bury the last afterthoughts of an injury that nagged her for three months, has snagged two goals in eight games this January, effectively doubling her bushel of points to four on the season.

“The first half of the year was rough, but I think things are starting to get better now,” she said. “And not just for me personally, but the team as a whole. I think everyone’s coming together more. And we just had a big weekend against BU, and I think things are just going to start building off of that.”

Fourth-line center Steph Morris, confined to diddlysquat in the way of scoring for her first 16 outings, has pitched in two pivotal assists over her last six, including one on O’Neill’s latest strike on Sunday.

Morris’ associate, Pam McDevitt, was likewise fettered for all of her first 15 ventures. She splashed that personal drought in early December and has since proceeded to initiate Katy Beach’s icebreaker/game-winner against the Terriers on Saturday.

Freshman Kate Bacon, lately supplementing the crafty international stars Erin Normore and Mari Pehkonen on the second line, aided in the Finnish Flare’s insurance goal that same afternoon, amounting to two goals and two helpers for her on the month and upping her total transcript to 6-4-10 in 24 swirls.

Even primordially defensive connoisseur Jennifer Friedman –though statistically silent in the latest series- is on the heels of a four-goal, five-point-in-four-games sugar rush, which spiked her data up to a 4-3-7 log from a 0-2-2 reading prior Christmas.

In partial thanks to this handful of pleasant surprise perk-ups, the Friars –who at any rate have long established their self-proclaimed comfort with defensive arm wrestling bouts- have split their last 23 goals amongst 10 firsthand strikers and 18 different point-getters.

“Our whole team’s getting better as the season goes on,” said O’Neill. “The season half of the season is where I think everyone starts to come together and everyone’s best play really comes out and shows.”

Quick Feeds: Nineteen individual Friars have now combined for exactly 100 assists…Each of the last nine PC-BU get-togethers have been decided by two goals or less. The Friars hold a 6-2-1 upper hand in that space…Within strictly league action, the Friars and BC Eagles are currently tied for the best scoring defense with a mere 19 goals against…According to head coach Bob Deraney, reached via e-mail yesterday, there have been no modifications to Jackie Duncan’s “day-to-day” stature on the IR, delivering that revelation more swiftly than Bruin Zdeno Chara’s superior slap shot…With a cumulative 57 saves on 58 shots faced over the weekend, goaltender Genevieve Lacasse was deemed the WHEA’s Rookie of the Week for the second time in three offerings and third time overall. She currently reigns supreme in the conference-only leaderboard under the headings of both goals-against average (1.10) and save-percentage (.958).

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Monday, January 26, 2009

Women's Hockey 2, Boston University 1

Friars tug Terriers’ leash
Report based on Gametracker

BOSTON- Trivial trends, elements and stats are nonetheless realities and must be dealt with accordingly –if only indirectly.

The Friars had just that sort of wager glowering before them yesterday at the bottom of a home-and-home series with Boston University. It was a twofold finer-points wager to scrape out their first back-to-back pair of wins in nearly two months and cultivate their first full two-point package at Walter Brown Arena in two seasons and four drop-ins.

“They’re all independent,” said head coach Bob Deraney, who some two-plus decades ago kilned more than a couple of triumphs himself in this building as one of Professor of Puck Jack Parker’s Pupils. “What happened in the past has no relevance on what’s going to happen tomorrow. It comes down to us just getting back to playing high-caliber hockey and again being willing to pay the price.”

Deraney had spoken those words in the aftermath of an epic 2-0 triumph back home on Saturday. The contesting elements, he figured, needed only to coalesce and churn in the Walter Brown melting pot roughly the same way they had at Schneider Arena.

They did, and then some. For the second time in as many days, Providence tipped the scale –albeit through a come-from-behind 2-1 decision- on the strength of a go-ahead goal by senior forward Katy Beach. Beach’s power play strike, inserted with 6:11 gone in the middle frame, would go down as the eighth game-clincher of her career and third in as many PC knockouts of the Terriers.

Yet again, though, before and after the Beach factor, the favorable upshot hardly went down with leisurely facility. The host Terriers, a pinch extra rabid for this immediate rematch, skated up an early tempest around adamant goaltender Genevieve Lacasse (23 saves). Within the first eight minutes, they spiked up a 6-1 upper hand in the shooting gallery, three coming on a power play while Erin Normore did time for an interference citation issued with 5:51 gone.

Right at the time of Normore’s jailbreak, attacker Erin Seman slugged home a fourth stab for an unofficial PP conversion and an unmistakable 1-0 lead.

But in partially duplicating Saturday on yet another front, the Friars would come to abolish a former 8-2 deficit on the shot clock. When they pulled even under that heading in the final minute before intermission, they did the same under the one roof of dictatorial data.

With 41 seconds to work with –and less than three minutes removed from spilling their second power play of the day- PC drew the 1-1 knot courtesy Jean O’Neill, who polished a rebound dropped off by Stephanie Morris.

For the better part of the latter 40 minutes, the puck continued to alternate zones in football-paced intervals. A holding penalty to Alyse Ruff at 1:49 of the second, in part, let BU reopen its shooting edge to 11-8. But upon her release, the fresh-out-the-box Ruff lassoed the biscuit and proceeded to pelt BU stopper Melissa Haber (20 saves), ultimately precipitating the deciding buzz.

The Friars had restored full strength for merely 46 seconds when they went a player up themselves, the Terriers’ top point-getter Melissa Anderson having been flagged for body-checking at 4:35.

Fruitless in all of its preceding 10 calls to action, and having produced only three goals in its last 24 opportunities, the power play brigade perked back up for a fleeting, one-shot conversion. Beach, already with four strikes when grinding on the player advantage, nailed home a feed from her fellow A-captain Normore, sprouting the fresh, 2-1 lead.

From there, the suddenly bolstered Friars sculpted a 15-11 shooting edge, only to let BU pull back even in that category, 15-15, before the second buzzer. The only difference: Lacasse, unlike Haber, uncompromisingly stood her ground through the whole swirl.

Haber swallowed another four unanswered shots during an early PK in the third. And beginning at 11:14 with a tripping call to the Friars’ Mari Pehkonen, the BU crease custodian was able to loosen her hunching stature and watch as her mates charged up eight of the last nine registered bids of the game.

But even after Amber Yung went off for hooking with 1:21 to spare –an unspeakably ominous reminder of the win here that wasn’t quite back in November- PC filtered the onslaught to a reasonably digestible load for Lacasse, who hauled in BU co-captain Gina Kearns’ last-ditch swing just on the cusp of the final horn to put a stamp on the weekend sweep.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Hockey Log

O’Neill has Haber’s number
Report based on Gametracker

BOSTON- Still yet to fully replenish the rhythm she pleasurably exhibited in the home stretch of her freshman season, PC sophomore Jean O’Neill reran at least one occurrence from around this time last year. When given the chance, she tucked a pivotal puck behind Boston University’s established backup, Melissa Haber.

Recall when the since-dispersed PRO Line of Mari Pehkonen, Alyse Ruff, and O’Neill was just chafing together its collective lumber en route to a blazing performance in the climax of the 2008 Hockey East pennant race. On a visit from the Terriers that January 31, O’Neill converted a feed from Pehkonen at 3:58 of the middle frame to saw through a 2-0 deficit. One period later, Pehkonen and Ruff collaborated to set up O’Neill once more, spotting a 3-2 Friars’ lead at the 1:29 mark.

It was the trinity’s seventh game as a unit, but the first that saw each constituent pen her name on the scoresheet. Not to mention, O’Neill had her first –and still only- multi-goal game to speak of. From there, she would pitch in seven more points, Ruff eight, and Pehkonen 11 over the remaining 11 games of the season.

The line was quick to disintegrate at training camp while O’Neill nursed a lower body ailment that confined her to the sidelines for the first three games. She has since appeared in all but two of the Friars last 23 ventures, but had merely a singular goal and assist by the halfway mark of the season.

Since the holiday break, though, O’Neill has mustered at least one shot in net in every game, save for Saturday’s 2-0 home win over the Terriers. And late in yesterday’s first period, she was in a serendipitous position even with members of two totally different lines on the ice with her: Stephanie Morris and Ruff, her one-time linemate and former Princeton Tiger Lilies teammate before their simultaneous arrival on the Divine Campus.

O’Neill’s eventual connection on a Morris rebound effectively turned the tables on PC’s come-from-behind win, and Haber’s third fall-from-ahead loss in as many career tussles with the Friars.

In all, O’Neill is now 3-for-5 when shooting against Haber.

Martin’s input more tangible
With an assist in each game this weekend, junior stay-at-home defender Colleen Martin –who defied her billing with a few deep cuts to the cage Saturday- now has a career-high six points on the year, all of them in the form of helpers. She was granted initial credit on the play that set up Katy Beach’s clincher on Saturday, likewise on what would end as Jean O’Neill’s equalizer late in the first period yesterday.

Martin, who has not tuned the mesh firsthand since her freshman year but has shown some curious on-and-off flashes of two-way connoisseur Erin Normore’s venturesome influence throughout the season, had two shots on net yesterday to boost her season total to 36. On this pace, she should easily surpass the 41 she accumulated late season, possibly concomitant with her 100th career game, due to fall in three weeks when the Friars finish a home-and-home series with New Hampshire up at the Whittemore Center.

Sizzling Bacon
Second line winger Kate Bacon discharged four of the Friars’ seven third period shots while letting another attempt go wide. She would finish the day with a two-team-leading 6 SOG, just ahead of BU’s Melissa Anderson (5), Erin Seman (4), and Holly Lorms (3). Only Bacon’s linemates –Mari Pehkonen and Normore- plus Stephanie Morris and Martin would record multiple shots on the PC sheet, tossing out two apiece.

Consistent command
PC sealed its three-game season series with Terriers at 2-0-1, amounting to three winning upshots in as many head-to-heads on the year. They have already swept Maine clean and went 2-1-0 against Vermont.

Quick Feeds: The Friars were outshot in both halves of this series, effectively enhancing their record to 6-5-1 in that situation. Additionally, with the come-from-behind trick yesterday, they are now 4-6-1 when authorizing the first goal. BU dropped to 10-2-3 when drawing first blood…Where has Laurel Koller gone? The BU senior entered the 2008-09 campaign with a three-year scoring transcript of 21-20-41. She now has but one solitary assist to speak of through the Terriers’ first 25 ventures...Sophomore defender Leigh Riley, one of the least penalized amongst the Friar regulars, committed just her fourth infraction of the season yesterday, guilty of obstruction interference at 12:32 of the first…Normore’s helper on Beach’s game winner yesterday tied her with freshman first-liner Ashley Cottrell for second on the team with 18 points…With two performances much more to her personal standards, Genevieve Lacasse pruned her GAA from 2.05 going into the series to 1.89 this morning. Her save percentage, meanwhile, was nudged up from .934 to .939.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Women's Hockey 2, Boston University 0

Guts and glory
Uncomplaining Friars nip Terriers

Upon decking Boston University blueliner Sarah Appleton’s close-range slap shot with her midsection, Friars’ forward Jean O’Neill slid kneeling into the far wall, her bare hand positioned as though she had just been ambushed by appendicitis.

But O’Neill promptly pulled herself up, eyeing the still-active chase brewing in her zone until the defense went into breakout mode, signifying the OK for a line change.

On that counter rush, Colleen Martin forwarded the disc to Pam McDevitt, who would nimbly tour it down to face-to-face status with BU stopper Allyse Wilcox (23 saves). McDevitt would ultimately leave a rebound for weakside winger Katy Beach to slug home, granting the Friars a 1-0 edge at 2:49 of the third period.

Bobby Baun’s fabled “drugstore goal” from the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals, it was not. But it did symbolically set PC on an uplifting pace towards a 2-0 triumph yesterday before a slightly more sizeable, slightly feistier-than-usual congregation of 258 at Schneider Arena.

“That’s what it takes this time of year,” said a similarly exuberant head coach Bob Deraney. “We were willing to pay the price for victory, and as the season goes on, the price gets higher and higher.

“I said to them earlier this week, ‘You used to inspire me with your playing, but now I’m bored.’ Today they inspired me, and they inspired each other. That self-sacrifice is the epitome of a team, and I think that’s what we’re becoming now.”

En route to her fifth shutout of the season, goaltender Genevieve Lacasse (34 saves) held out one BU onslaught after another, including seven power play segments. The Terriers utilized the first two player-up cases of the day to crack open a gaping 12-5 edge under the SOG heading before fifteen minutes were gone.

In turn, the Friars wrinkled that gap back to 12-11 on six unanswered stabs in a matter of three minutes, during which Caroline Bourdeau and Russell served overlapping sentences for body-checking and tripping, respectively. But the seasoned Wilcox was equally responsive, thus sending each team to their dressing room with a goose-egg intact.

More of the same unfolded in the middle frame, with PC snuffing on each of four shots during their third power play before Lacasse zapped three Terrier attempts around the halfway mark.

The Friars most stimulating chance of the period, though, fell during yet a fourth PK in the seventeenth minute of action. Finnish flare Mari Pehkonen corralled the puck in her own end, cleared the road kill twig of point patroller Kasey Boucher, and gushed unchallenged down the right alley, only to be stoned by Wilcox, salvaging the scoreless knot for one more Zamboni shift.

“You’ve got two teams that compete extremely hard and have two terrific goaltenders,” Deraney acknowledged. “Allyse Wilcox is great (for BU), and obviously Genevieve played very well for us. So when you have a goalie battle, which it was today, you don’t expect a lot of goals to be scored.

“And the fact that we just stayed the course, just played our game, and just kept being disciplined enough to wait for the opportunity to strike, today it went our way.”

Specifically, it went their way moments after Lacasse had anchored a fifth PK on a carry-over hooking infraction to Ashley Cottrell, and after the rookie netminder pushed away two more shots as the Terriers lingered in her territory after Cottrell’s jailbreak at 1:27 of the third.

But with partial thanks to O’Neill’s grit, the Friars were soon on a fleeting counterattack and broke the ice together with BU’s spirits at 2:49.

Four minutes, 15 seconds, and one shot later, Pehkonen solidified the final score by deftly stickhandling through a nearly statuary maze of red bodies deep on the near side and slipping her sixth goal of the season under Wilcox.

From there, both teams dealt with another two penalty kills apiece, and within the final minute, the Terriers’ six-pack attack let its aggravation spill over. When Lacasse clamped down Tara Watchorn’s up front bid to summon a whistle with 39 seconds to spare, eleven stick-rattling bodies converged on her crease. Once the scrum was dispersed, BU’s top gun Melissa Anderson was boxed for barking with a 10-minute misconduct.

Still allotted five skaters –with Wilcox temporarily reinstated for a defensive zone face-off- the Terriers had their final rush cut off by Friar first-liner Alyse Ruff, who would draw a checking penalty against Watchorn as she stormed to the again-empty net.

The clock read exactly 0:00.9 by then. The subsequent drop of the puck would effectively drop Boston one point behind Providence in the Hockey East standings.

“I thought we were very disciplined today,” said Deraney. “Down the stretch, BU kind of lost their composure, but I think that had a lot to do with our mental toughness.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Hockey Log

Reruns of resiliency
With support, composure, Lacasse stamps another shutout

Genevieve Lacasse has adopted the regimen of a disgruntled, disinterested grade-schooler, indulging in maximum excitement and amusement in the prime of a weekend, then crumpling at or near the advent of the week.

She flaunted her happier half once more yesterday, charging up her third shutout in as many home Saturday matinees, this one a 34-save sweep as part of an epic 2-0 overhaul of Boston University.

This coming a long five days of retooling from and discarding any recollections of last Sunday’s choppy 5-2 falter to Vermont, wherein she only handled 15 of 19 shots faced. The preceding day, she had swallowed all of 16 shots as part of a 3-0 triumph over the Catamounts. And that had served to wash out the vinegar from a 7-3 shelling at Dartmouth four nights prior –which, in turn, did little to serve as a smooth follow-up on a 5-0 blanking of New Hampshire the previous Saturday.

“Ideally, we’ve seen what she’s capable of doing, and the key is for her to bring that every night,” admitted head coach Bob Deraney. “(But) it’s just youthfulness, and as she continues to mature as a goaltender and as a Division-I athlete, I think she’ll be more consistent. But on nights like this, when she’s on her game, it really gives us a lot of confidence.”

Yesterday, Lacasse took in a workload much more to her standard serving size as the Terriers balanced their ammo discharge between 12 first period stabs, nine in the second, and 13 in the third. Fifteen of those 34 cumulative shots were spread over seven BU power plays.

But apart from one slapper by freshman defender Tara Watchorn that scaled her trapper mitt and dinked off the far post, nothing escaped her site or her fatal touch.

And still another indefinite bushel of Boston shots never came within playing distance of Lacasse. Most tellingly, the likes of Jean O’Neill and Erin Normore traded in no more than one shift and a fraction of bodily comfort to block a few third period sizzlers. O’Neill’s sacrifice would indirectly factor in to the counter rush that parented the go-ahead goal while Normore’s unofficial goaltending tryout –performed around the 8:17 mark- forced her to skate off with the aid of teammates Katy Beach and Colleen Martin, only to join back in for a power play at 10:49.

“We’ve got 25 warriors,” said Deraney. “Kids who come in to play every night, regardless of their physical condition…and that’s every coach’s dream: to have kids who want to be out there, regardless, instead of making excuses not to be out there.”

Spring fever spikes
With Connecticut and New Hampshire having already polished off weekend sweeps, the Friars were involuntarily docked to fourth place, though only a point behind the Huskies and two behind the Wildcats, who are now interlocked with Boston College at the top of the heap.

Today’s rematch with BU up at Walter Brown Arena (3:00 p.m. face-off) bears the following menu of eventualities for PC: win and directly build on their one-point lead on the Terriers whilst hurdling Connecticut and possibly claiming a partial stake in first place. Either that, or risk letting Boston restore the lead it had until around 4:00 yesterday.

And regardless of the immediate upshot, they still have eight regular season engagements with teams currently pried apart by now more than nine points. A regular ride of lottery balls is waiting to happen over the next month.

“We started playing playoff hockey today. That’s really what happened,” Deraney asserted after yesterday’s grittily executed triumph. “Every game is going to have ramifications upon seedings and home ice. It’s just a tremendous (new) playoff format that makes for early weekends to really mean something when there’s still five weeks to go (in the regular season).”

Quick Feeds: Freshman Kate Bacon assisted on Mari Pehkonen’s insurance goal, granting her four points in her last five games and 10 on the year…Laura Veharanta, who for the first time has been held scoreless in consecutive ventures, still led PC with five shots on net yesterday. BU’s Sarah Russell and Gina Kearns led the full, two-team card with seven and six registered stabs, respectively…Junior forward Jackie Duncan, who recently re-aggravated a lower body ailment, has been officially termed “day-to-day,” though her return for as early as today’s game has been ruled out. “We’ll know for sure on Monday,” Deraney said…An online audiocast will be available for today’s game.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Old Western theme
Women’s WCHA giants could coast to national home ice

The NCAA Women’s Frozen Four as we know it was born and has subsequently lived side-by-side with all of the still-young third millennium A.D. As of this week –and most officially as of March 22- it has barely outlived the second George Bush presidency.

So, too, has the WCHA’s banner hegemony, split strictly between Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Wisconsin. And so long as the conglomeration of pundits from USCHO, USA Today, and like outlets give their supreme approval to the perennial bigwigs of the Midwest, cathartic change for long-disgruntled easterners will be lodged onto the collective twigs of the tournament ambassadors from challenging conferences.

The nation’s lone three ring-bearing programs have split the top three slots in the polls for the last four weeks. Thee three queens have earned such enduring trust that USCHO has most recently asked its viewers to weigh in on “Who is the best team outside of the WCHA this season?”

Top-ranked Minnesota came into the weekend on a 12-0-0 thrill ride launched immediately after a 2-1 falter on October 26 before whom? The Badgers: a program that suffered its first blemish two weeks ago, resulting in their discharge from the regal perch in the polls.

And that altogether negligible statistical legion was inflicted by whom? The very Minnesota-Duluth program that directly usurped their national title in last year’s championship game.

Who has proudly laid claim to half of the defending champion Bulldogs six regulation losses whilst wresting away a would-be extra point in a shootout showdown? The ladies brandishing either a golden, upside-down “W” or a red, rightside-up “W.”

Yes, six regulation losses; one more than each of their four immediate trailers on both of the principal leaderboards. Yet in the eyes of a majority of judges, UMD is just more roundly braced.

With everyone settling down to their conference pennant races, it’s likely bound to be all bigwig-on-bigwig affliction from here on out. Barring an overflow of effective outbursts by any of the less-than-heavyweights of the WCHA, the Big Three are inclined to split those first three poll positions for the rest of the ride. The time for everyone to assert themselves nationally before the decisive dance has long passed, and the Badgers sealed an interleague record of 6-0-0, the Gophers and Bulldogs 5-1-0 each.

By the time this write-up is open to public viewing, two more editions to the State of Hockey’s paramount collegiate rivalry will have been completed. And the so-termed “Border Battle” pitting Minnesota and Wisconsin will be carried out in two weeks.

Some –if not all- zealous easterners feel the anguish all the more when they are reminded of, say, Northeastern transfer Chelsey Jones, now laboring with the Gophers less than a half hour away from her hometown of Stillwater, Minn.

Jones, last year’s radiant rookie on an otherwise shallow Hub Husky scoring chart, pounced at an offer to go home and assume the position of a smaller fish in the embarrassingly deep pond that is Ridder Arena. (Jones had but two goals and six points to speak of through 20 games played after she ran up a 13-9-22 transcript at NU last year).

But at least New England made the initial swipe on that take-then-give-back transaction. The same cannot be said in Wisconsin, where born-and-raised coastal girls have settled for studies and skating and bear no logical signs of succumbing to homesickness.

There is a trinity of New Englanders only raring to hit their peak at Mark Johnson’s capstone project in Madison. Cushing alumnae Meghan Duggan and Erika Lawler rode into the weekend with respective transcripts of 9-19-28 and 9-23-32. Duggan was slated to play her 100th career game on Friday, already with 123 cumulative points to her credit. New Hampshire native Hilary Knight tops the Badgers charts altogether with 23 goals and 41 points.

Just a reminder that, come March, they’ll all be vying for a passport to none other than Boston’s Agganis Arena.

In a nod to the current edition of The Hockey News (press date: February 2) wherein “NHL Team Reports examine the best story so far this season for each of the 30 franchises,” the Free Press offers the same scoop concerning PC:

Women’s: Before her advent to a stable already to the brim with three incumbent goaltenders, Genevieve Lacasse’s last visible preview was an 0-2 showing coupled with nine goals admitted for Little Caesar’s in USA Hockey’s U19 national tournament. She would end up monitoring the bench door while associate Brittany Ott monitored the blue paint in their championship shortcoming to the Chicago Mission.

Ott has since pursued a roster spot for Division-III St. Anselm –answering to former Friar Kerstin Matthews- but has yet to take in a sliver of game action behind a trinity of other Hawks goaltenders. Lacasse, conversely, has pole-vaulted the trio of veterans in the PC Goalies’ Guild and entered this weekend with a 10-7 record, 2.05 GAA, and .934 save percentage.

Her long-paranormal proficiency has tapered off a touch in recent weeks, but Lacasse remains a nucleus to the obsessive-defensive Friars and is still a no-duh nominee for team MVP and league Rookie of the Year accolades.

Men’s: There is no time like the present to indulge in the bare normalcy the Friars have ostensibly recovered since returning from a sorely needed month’s hibernation. Most every game –certainly all nine intraleague contests- prior to the holiday only struck an additional underline beneath the obvious: PC was psychologically mutilated and pining for a momentum decelerator that is more commonly chronicled when it takes a negative toll on high-flying programs (Air Force, anybody?).

Those who stuck with it have returned to kindle a 3-0-1 start to the New Year, rapidly replenishing their genuine membership in the Hockey East playoff push. So long as they keep the not-too-distant past buried in ice shavings, the worst of its afterthought will be a gentle reminder not to take regular victories for granted.

Big Bear blow
Rookie Mike Griffin –the most sizeable offensive body for Brown University at 6-4, 200 lbs. and second only to 6-6 Mike Stuart in the program as a whole- bailed after scraping out a mere two assists over eight credited games played. Griffin had last suited up for the Bears’ 6-2 bow before host Minnesota on Day 1 of the Dodge Holiday Classic, then witnessed the next five games externally before he turned in his withdrawal slip Tuesday. So while the Bears and neighboring Friars have sprung off the upshot of last month’s Mayor’s Cup in consistently polar directions –riding into the weekend on 0-4-2 and 3-0-1 strings respectively- Brown can at least point to its parallel to the jagged Joe Lavin saga.

Barto’s hat in the five rings
Former PC women’s player and coach Jackie Barto has been termed one of the finalists for Team USA’s Vancouver Olympic whistle –reportedly set for bestowment this Tuesday on either Barto, Harvard’s Katy Stone, or former Lake Placid scoring beacon and current ring-bearing Wisconsin skipper Mark Johnson. Barto, whose Ohio State Buckeyes have spun out on a 2-13-2 tumble since the end of a 4-3 October, bears the underdog resume, but her hypothetical appointment could ostensibly propitiate zealous Friar Fanatics. After all, she is taking aim at a seat awkwardly relinquished by Ben Smith in 2006, not long after he had discharged the program’s chosen heart-and-soul, Cammi Granato.

Quick Feeds: Naturally, all who claim a stake in U.S. college athletic affairs –be it as participants, rooters, or wordsmiths- ought to reserve a prayer for NCAA president Myles Brand, who has divulged his bout with pancreatic cancer…He has about a Toronto Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup shot at taking this the full distance, to be sure. Nevertheless, PC junior captain John Cavanagh is officially in the running for the 2009 Hobey Baker Award –opposite 18 fellow Hockey Easterners. Then again, the dubiously democratic fan voting system that penned four Montreal Canadiens to the NHL All-Star starting card is open till the end of March. Then again –again- a press release notes that the people’s will uncompromisingly amounts to 1% of the nomination. Kind of brings the point into question either way, does it not?…UNH Wildcats senior defenseman Joe Charlebois –a co-captain who was on the cusp of a career-high 10 points- has had the rest of his season zapped due to academic ineligibility. Little too much time devoted to the Sparkle Twins? (Sorry. Couldn’t resist)…This author’s picks for the out-of-market game of the week: the Yale men’s team, within tasting distance of membership in the Top 20 national rankings hosts #9 Princeton on Friday.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com