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Saturday, December 12, 2009

On Hockey

Cottrell hardly hampered
Gutsy forward’s effort helps salvage a point

Chestnut Hill, Mass.- Alarmingly confined to crutches for the first half of the week after a bang-bang succession of blocked shots yanked her out of action in last Saturday’s visit to New Hampshire, Ashley Cottrell clouded any remnants of bruises in last night’s 2-2 tie/1-0 shootout loss to Boston College.

By night’s end, the sophomore center’s transcript read mostly like the conventional Cottrell who has anchored most every plus sign in the first half of the Friars’ 2009-10 campaign. For starters, she along with linemates Laura Veharanta and Nicole Anderson collaborated on yet another power play goal –the fourth time that entire trinity has had a hand in the same scoring play since they were assembled six games ago.

That goal, potted at 9:03 of the first period, drew first blood in the game and granted Cottrell point No. 21 on the year, thus equating her total output in 36 games as a frosh. At this rate, by the close of the regular season, she figures to charge up at least 37 points.

Later on, in midst of a third period power play with a 2-1 advantage at hand, Cottrell thrust three successive shots at BC stopper Corrine Boyles without letting the goalie summon a whistle at any point in between. The only little thing missing there, of course, was a conversion that might have wrested the game entirely from the Eagles’ reach.

Which brings us to the other moderate drawback. After BC knotted things up and spilled the game over to a shootout, Cottrell could not come through the way she ordinarily does –like, for instance, when she salvaged home ice for the 2009 playoffs by scorching Molly Schaus last February during the Friars’ previous visit to Conte Forum.

Last night, the radiant rookie Boyles snuffed Cottrell, and then did likewise to Veharanta and Alyse Ruff, enough for Allie Thunstrom’s one-on-one netter to grant Boston the extra point and full claim to first place in the Hockey East standings for Christmas break.

If Friartownies are still looking for a little more positive perspective, it may as well be noted that Boyles and Co. have mastered the shootout even more than PC, which is now a decent 4-2 in the lightning round this season when you combine conference and interleague action. The Eagles, meanwhile, have played in four league shootouts this season and have grabbed the bonus booty every time. Their last three shootout wins have been 1-0 decisions and Boyles has blocked all six attempts she has dealt with.

That aside, it would not be so precarious to bet that the Friars got the invaluable single point last night, in part, because their most consistent player was available and did not submit to any sores in her legs. Cottrell totaled four shots on net in regulation, all of them on power plays, and won 14 out of her 27 face-offs. Her line combined for 11 of PC’s 23 regulation stabs at Boyles.

With the assist on Anderson’s icebreaker, she appeared on the scoresheet for the sixteenth time in 19 opportunities and the eighth in her last nine. The only time she has been held pointless in that stretch was last week, when she missed roughly half of the game in the aftermath of the Courtney Birchard mini-bombardment.

Theoretically, the no-excuse Friars could have gotten along just as fine last night had Cottrell been advised to sit out and/or opted to take precautionary leave and miss a full game for the first time in her college career. But given the sequence of last night’s outcome, there would have been no guarantees.

A mere 33 seconds after Anderson’s goal –which was, after all, executed in a way only Anderson, Cottrell, and Veharanta seem to know how to do together- PC swiftly augmented its lead to 2-0 courtesy of Kate Bacon (assists: Colleen Martin and Jessie Vella). The Eagles gave nothing up afterward and ultimately deleted the deficit en route to their virtual victory after the five-on-five ice chips settled.

Under other circumstances, Friars’ head coach Bob Deraney would have taken no discomfort in simply summoning someone along the lines of Ruff or O’Neill or even Vella to plug the void on his top power play unit. But what if the new threesome didn’t gel fast enough? What if they didn’t get that momentum-swinging conversion? What if PC didn’t have that point-salvaging cushion at hand when the Eagles perked up in the third period?

Besides, Cottrell’s output on the year is still twice what any of her mates have kindled. Well, not technically, seeing as Anderson upped her point total to 11 last night, but the point is still explanatory.

Likewise, last night’s shootout point should be well taken on the Friars’ part. They will now hit their three-week respite with a 5-7-7 overall record, concomitant with a 4-3-4 conference transcript and 14 points for third place on the WHEA leaderboard.

Maybe they would have had the same result without Cottrell –in which case the obvious sentiment would have been, “Well, at least it was just one game, and she has a good three weeks to recover.” Or, maybe they would not have.

But, for lack of a fresher sine qua non, what’s done is done for Part I of the season. Cottrell is pretty well the team’s first half MVP for her peerless consistency and, as was displayed last night, her determination.

And as a whole, the Friars will have a welcome fresh sheet awaiting them 21 days from now.

And maybe by then, as has already been hinted in recent weeks, the reliable likes of Cottrell will be more prominent in the Andersons, Bacons, Ruffs, Veharantas, Vellas, etc.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Friday, December 11, 2009

On Hockey

PC, BC to cross mirroring paths

How ironically fitting that, in parallel with the climactic academic avalanche about to hit most every college campus by way of semester exams, the Providence and Boston College women’s hockey team’s will engage in one of their toughest and weightiest games of the year right before they can settle in to a much-needed respite.

To brush off the obvious points first, tonight’s engagement at the Conte Forum (7:00 p.m. face-off) pits two statistical underachievers showing hints that their groove has returned and naturally poised to earn themselves a stocking-stuffing statement before the December deceleration takes effect.

“I kind of wish the break wasn’t coming because I think we’re starting to really catch our stride,” said Friars head coach Bob Deraney, his team hoping to prop up the momentum they garnered from last Saturday’s groundbreaking road triumph over New Hampshire, a win that stopped the residual bleeding from an iffy 1-3-4 November.

“The added rest will be good,” Deraney granted. “But before that, we’ve got a terrific Boston College team to play with two more valuable points in the league at stake.”

Actually, there is a little extra cream packed into those two valuable points. With BC’s 4-0 loss Tuesday to the Wildcats –indubitably a partial product of New Hampshire’s frustration from Saturday and, in turn, a surefire motivator for the Eagles going forward– a full or partial claim to first place in Hockey East is at stake tonight.

This shall be the last meeting between any two Hockey East cohabitants until UNH and Northeastern meet up at Fenway Park on January 8. And right now, the Huskies are alone atop the standings with 15 points. The Eagles follow with 14 and the Friars, along with the now-idled Wildcats and BU Terriers, are within hooking distance with 13.

So that means, a win for BC pole-vaults them over Northeastern for sole possession of the top seed until everyone returns to action. A regulation win for Providence will knot the Friars and Huskies, whereas a PC shootout triumph would result in a three-way knot.

Whatever the upshot, tonight’s prevailing party will welcome the refreshing swig of victory and hit the break with the comfortable assurance of being in one of the first-round bye slots to start the more intense phase of the Hockey East pennant race.

Adding to the prospective pleasure, the Friars and Eagles alike have gotten by on a diet comprised heavily of table scraps in the first half of their respective campaigns. They have each won four league games in regulation and tied another three –BC winning all three subsequent shootouts, PC winning two. Meanwhile they have struggled, at best, to tip the scale their way during interleague action, each with only one nonconference win to speak of and the Friars currently bearing a few honorable mention votes in the national polls.

And for all of the home ice they have been allotted early and often, both teams have failed to build easy collateral. The Friars are 4-5-3 at Schneider Arena, the Eagles 4-6-3 at Conte Forum.

But beneath all that is the perfectly logical explanation that both teams are still waiting for the glue to freeze on their repaired rosters and for consistency to follow without any further interruption.

The Eagles, with only 17 skaters available even in times of perfect health, have subsisted primarily on the work of senior striker Allie Thunstrom the same way the Friars have had but one standout in Ashley Cottrell. Thunstrom is the lone Eagle with double-digit points (13) through 18 games while Cottrell, in the same time frame, leads her mates with 20 points, doubling the output of the three runners-up in Nicole Anderson, Jean O’Neill, and Alyse Ruff.

In terms of making up ground, BC is a few strides behind Providence. In particular, they currently rank dead-last in league offense with a 1.72 goals-per-game median. Likewise, their power play needs more sprucing up given its 8.7 percent success rate.

Still, assessing his opponent in terms that he could just as easily apply to his own pupils, Deraney said, “One thing I know for sure is they’re much better than their record shows. They’re very talented.

“Allie Thunstrom has tremendous speed and can be a real game-breaker, and we’re going to have our hands full with (Mary Restuccia and Danielle Welch) who did a terrific job last year as freshmen, now sophomores with a year of experience under their belt. Corinne Boyles has played extremely well for them in goal. So they pose a lot of challenges and a lot of obstacles that we’re going to have to overcome.”

The Eagles have indeed flaunted a little flare here and there, most notably a week ago when they bumped Northeastern in overtime, 3-2. But that aside, since mid-November, they have been a vinegary 1-4-1, all four of those losses coming against nationally ranked teams.

That sounds a little like somebody you would know from the around here, does it not? Before the Lake Whittemore Revolution, the Friars went 1-3-2 in an endless string of engagements with national heavyweights last month. Many of those contests were tied or, at worst, lost in passably dignified fashion.

“Obviously, we want to put a winning streak together” said Deraney. “We’re going to have an opportunity to put up back-to-back wins for the first time since opening weekend (home sweep of Maine).

“We’ve been playing very good hockey,” he continued, citing all of the close shaves from recent weeks. “(Last) Saturday we were very consistent and that’s we’re looking for on Friday. We’re looking to put together another sound, strong 60 minutes offensively, defensively, and on special teams.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hockey Log

Going smoothly with the flow
Deraney: Rigano “typifies” PC women’s progression

Coaxing a comment on an individual player out of Bob Deraney is about as daunting a dare as an effort to smuggle more than one puck behind the back of Northeastern savior Florence Schelling in a single game.

To that point, when asked to assess the rapid improvement of senior forward Arianna Rigano –a second-year Friar who had converted from the Division III powerhouse Saint Anselm two summers ago- the skipper’s initial offer was as follows:

“I’ve been pleased with our entire team and the progress we’ve made from last spring to this (past) summer to where we are right now,” he said. “I think Anna typifies the improvement of every one of our players from last year to this year.

“I feel very good, not just for Anna, but for all of the players that are experiencing success right now.”

Rigano’s success runs chiefly along the lines of gritting her teeth through a year’s worth of baptism by dry ice, accordingly modifying her game over the summer, and returning to a spontaneous surplus of opportunity with an overwhelming handful of injured teammates.

In her “rookie” year in the Division I ranks, Rigano pitched in four points through 18 consecutive appearances, then sat out for 10 of the remaining 18 games. She was a healthy scratch the day the Friars’ playoff run ended with a 3-1 semifinal loss to tournament host New Hampshire.

About one human pregnancy later, PC made its return to the oft-dreaded Lake Whittemore last Saturday, granting Rigano her first opportunity to play in the heralded barn only about a half hour west of her old striding grounds in Manchester.

Suffice it to say, she made the most of it, assisting on freshman Jessie Vella’s icebreaker with 8:32 gone in the opening period, then thrusting in the eventual game-winner 92 seconds later. It made for her second multi-point show on the year –the other being a two-goal trick at St. Lawrence on October 10- and upped her 2009-10 transcript to four goals and three helpers in 18 games.

“I definitely think I’ve grown,” Rigano said. “Last year, I had to get used to the intensity and stuff like that, so I think this year I’m playing more than last year, and it’s definitely helped. My teammates always help me, too.”

For the first five weeks (10 games) of action this season, Rigano was paired with established scorer Alyse Ruff and promising rookie Jess Cohen. Together, the three never combined for any fewer than seven shots on goal per game. Most nights, that total was more along the lines of 10 or 11 stabs.

More recently, with a full roster finally feasible and a few experimental shuffles on the lines, Rigano has been seen posted with Ruff and Jean O’Neill, who in the wee stages of their respective careers once supplemented the celebrated PRO Line with Finnish Flare Mari Pehkonen. In last Saturday’s 4-1 triumph, the starting trinity pitched in eight of PC’s 21 shots and accumulated a goal and four assists.

But Deraney has also made a habit of deviating what he pencils in on the game sheet. Accordingly, Rigano has also seen substantial ice time with the likes of Vella and Kate Bacon, who combined for a decent five shots and a plus-5 rating Saturday.

Rigano is still the runaway team-leader with 63 SOG, a proliferating upgrade from the 36 she landed all last year which also places her in a two-way tie for seventh in the league with radiant Wildcat Kelly Paton –whom the Friars held scoreless in Saturday’s win. On top of that, she is one of only three PC skaters currently with a positive plus/minus rating.

“She’s finally made the adjustment,” said Deraney, finally consenting to pinpoint some of Rigano’s specifics. “But it’s a credit to her hard work this summer and how much she improved as an athlete and it’s to see that hard work paying off for her.

“She’s a big part of our offense and has become one of our big penalty killers. She’s always wanted to be a Division I hockey player. Last year she had that aspiration met. And now she wants to be a real good Division I hockey player, and she’s starting to meet that expectation.”

More poll presence
One day after resurfacing just below the Top 10 leaderboard from USCHO.com, the Friars garnered five honorable mention votes to rejoin the mix in the USA Today poll. Meanwhile, conference cohabitant Boston University was tugged down into the same not-quite mix with three votes and Connecticut ascended to the No. 10 slot, below No. 9 Northeastern and fourth-ranked New Hampshire.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hockey Log

Vella makes a triple crown for rookie class

Yesterday afternoon, Friars’ forward Jessie Vella laid claim to the WHEA’s weekly top rookie garland, giving her sorority its fourth such honor in 10 opportunities this season. Her mini-victory follows two crowns for Jess Cohen in October and one taken by newfound power play connoisseur Nicole Anderson in mid-November.

No other institution has had more than two weekly honorees in the frosh category this season. And between the three forwards, who constitute 15 percent of PC’s active skaters, the frosh have now supplied 32.5 percent (14 out of 43) of the team’s goals.

“I think that our class is a strong, hard-working group of people,” Vella said yesterday upon being enlightened to her award. “And if we really come together, we’re going to do some amazing things. We’re a really good bunch of kids, the whole team in general.”

Until her belated debut on November 20 versus Northeastern, Vella had been confined to the sidelines by a residual spring soccer injury and her team had been confined to no more than 17 skaters, though more often 15 or 16, for the first dozen games of the season. Once cleared, she made a simultaneous debut with fellow frosh Emily Groth at center and senior Jackie Duncan assuming the left wing.

That line made no ripples that particular evening, but since then, Vella has linked with sophomores Kate Bacon and Abby Gauthier and extracted three points in as many ventures. The token she received yesterday from Boss Bertagna’s office is a direct reward for nailing two goals on as many shots and notching a team-best plus-3 rating in Saturday’s icebreaking 4-1 overthrow of New Hampshire.

“When I was coming back, it was really frustrating because you basically have to start all over again,” she said. “But to be able to come back and make a difference like that feels really good. Now I’ve got to just keep up my hard work.”

As best four games can tell, Vella is none too far off the mark from her spot-on Sonny Watrous pace in the Ontario-based Provincial Women’s League last season. She pitched in a cool 34 points in as many games during her final college prep campaign with the Durham Junior Lightning. A duplicate act with the Friars would go a long way towards supplementing an offense now within tasting distance of consistently acceptable productivity.

More importantly, though, her mere presence and instant impact are helping to supplement a depth chart that is just grateful to be finally void of personnel cavities.

“She’s been playing very well for us, and you could see it coming in practice,” said head coach Bob Deraney. “We’ve talked about getting some continuity in our lineup. We don’t have a lot of players, so when a couple of players are out, it tends to hurt our continuity. She’s been a very important piece of the puzzle and we’ve needed to get that piece into the puzzle in order for it to work the way it’s supposed to.”

Quick feeds: Top gun Ashley Cottrell, whose seven-game point streak was halted in Saturday’s win, is facing another speedbump after letting back-to-back shots from UNH blueliner Courtney Birchard biff her lower body in the second period. Her status for Friday’s visit to Boston College is currently ambiguous. Cottrell still holds the Friars’ best plus/minus with a plus-4 rating…The Friars have led after the second period in all five of their wins this season…PC scooped up one honorable mention vote in yesterday’s revised USCHO top ten poll, thus resurfacing their name on the national landscape after a seven-week absence…New Hampshire will drop in on BC, the Friars’ Friday opponent, tonight (7:00 face-off). With Northeastern idled until New Year’s, a win will tuck the Eagles into first place in the league…Providence is currently the league’s best road draw, having averaged 387 spectators at their first six away games. Over four conference road games, they have played before a median of 442 fans.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com