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Friday, January 1, 2010

On Hockey

New Year, same wagers
PC women facing old second-half tasks

Pardon the umpteenth rerun of this Friar Puck edition of “Same Auld Lang Syne,” but the calendar Zamboni has just completed its latest big shift and left a sheet for the PC women’s hockey team not unlike what this collegiate generation is accustomed to.

Yet again, at 5-7-7 overall, Providence has to make up a little ground that it spilled in Part I of its campaign. More than anything, the Friars need to extract something tangible –and plenty of it- from the remainder of the interleague schedule so they can hustle through the Hockey East pennant race with less excess desperation and not feel like they have to depend on that unreliable automatic bid.

And the first two weekends of the second semester will be immensely critical in terms of sprucing up their national viability. Quite ironically, for tomorrow and Sunday, they are on the program’s first business trip to Minnesota since its last and lone NCAA tournament appearance in 2005. They shall lock twigs with St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato in the Husky-hosted Easton Holiday Showcase, gunning for their first win over a WCHA tenant in four years and eight tries (0-7-1).

Upon returning home, they will gear up for a two-night visit from a roundly braced Cornell team, which leaped somewhat out of the left corner and comfortably perched itself in the polls for the last six weeks of activity and shows little sign of recession any time in the near future.

The Friars are currently a discomfiting 1-4-3 in their nonconference slate. Versus nationally ranked opponents, they are 2-5-3, and where everything stands now, that is only good enough for a solitary honorable mention vote beneath the USCHO Top 10 board.

With all that in mind, and with one other interleague date at No. 5 Harvard coming near the end of this month, PC will need to derive something out of these next two weeks similar to what they cultivated back in the first two weeks of October, but preferably with a few more layers of tangible success.

If that happens, a surefire byproduct will be added –but preferably moderate- conviction for when the focus shifts solely to the turbulent Hockey East stretch drive. If not, only the hockey gods know what’s next.

In any case, recall the irreproachable launch this team had to their 2009-10 season, starting on a winning note for the first time in five years and going 3-1-1 with the lone loss requiring overtime to complete.

As far as schedule strength is concerned, the first two weeks of January pan out vaguely similar to the start of October. Like the Friars, the SCSU Huskies and MSU Mavericks are both thawing back out after a three-week respite from game action. And performance-wise, PC stands at least one notch above this weekend’s competition in every realm from records to offense to defense to goaltending to discipline to special teams.

Not unlike Dan Lichterman’s pupils from Maine, whom PC swept on opening weekend, both of the Minnesotan adversaries might be capable of pulling a surprise stinger here and there. And they might bank on a little conference quarterfinal playoff action in two months. But nothing more than that is likely.

Beyond a productive packet of seniors –Holly Roberts, Meghan Pezon, Caitlin Hogan, Felicia Nelson, and Danielle Hirsch- St. Cloud doesn’t have any double-digit point-getters. In fact, nobody else on the relatively young roster has any more than five points to their credit, and the five aforementioned have accounted for 43 out of the team’s 46 goals.

Translation: not a lot of depth in the 8-10-2 Huskies. And similarly, the 4-8-4 Mavericks are a little more balanced across their line charts, but the cumulative wealth is even slimmer with no reckonable producers beyond Ashley Young (13 points), Emmi Lahtonen (12), and Lauren Smith (12). Worse still, they brandish a tandem of goaltenders, Alli Altmann and Paige Thunder, each with a sub-.900 save percentage.

Naturally, none of the said data automatically amounts to PC’s first winning streak since -guess when- the opening Maine series. But it would be advisable to pounce and start snowballing some confidence, for two dates with a certified ECAC power will be lying in wait afterward, as was the case circa October 9. Last time around, after bumping the Black Bears, it was a soul-sharpening excursion to Clarkson and St. Lawrence, both of whom the Friars never trailed by more than a goal for 60 minutes and loose change.

Of course, the then and now also have their distinct differences. Head coach Bob Deraney figures to field a fuller, healthier roster than he had in October, thus shortness of stamina need not be any more of an excuse than letting a hypothetical hot start get to everyone’s head.

Been there, learned that, right?

Furthermore, there is a team identity somewhere beneath a pile of snow that has already been partially cleared by the furious forking of Nicole Anderson, Ashley Cottrell, and Laura Veharanta. Assuming the elements of their chemistry have not wilted from inactivity, they might, as both a full-time even-strength trinity and power play unit, be a slightly earlier second coming of the PRO Line (Mari Pehkonen, Alyse Ruff, and Jean O’Neill, for any rookie readers) from two years back. Or they might be redeployed to help some of their mates rekindle their own torches.

The reliable Anderson-Cottrell-Veharanta combo is not a bad start, not unlike a few statistically and spiritually invigorating weeks’ worth of game action. But in both cases, the Friars’ 2010 resolution must be to build on what they have and never leave the foundation unattended. Like one’s house plant, it will either flourish through daily watering or wither through inconsistent care.

This has the deceptive look of a do-over, but it’s more of another make-up cramming session. Best-case scenario, PC learns from its past and doesn’t let the issue get any tougher. After all, the 18 veterans have confronted this issue before.

Again: been there, learned that.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com