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Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Hockey

Looking for an exclamation point versus UNH

For the PC women’s hockey team, a sweep of this weekend’s home-and-home engagement with rival New Hampshire sounds idealistic (when does it not?), but a split is perfectly realistic.

Either way, collect a win over the next two days and the overwhelming concept of taking the larger half of the three-game regular season wishbone from the Enemy Epitome would actually come to life. There are few ways on this coast and in this league to stamp a much bigger, bolder statement.

Uncannily enough, today’s 2 p.m. bout at the Whittemore Center is not merely the first Friar-Wildcat twig-lock since Providence made history by claiming the first Hockey East road victory at New Hampshire’s expense. It is the Cats’ first home game since they grudgingly relinquished their nearly seven-and-a-half-year-old streak.

Furthermore, both squads are unbeaten in the six weeks since then, PC having gone 4-0-2, UNH 3-0-0. So who has the greater stake in this?

Well, on a dignity front, the Wildcats have a bit more to lose simply because they have more in their possession. They do not want even a carry-over losing streak on their oft-feared pond, especially if it means giving all the spoils to their timeless rival.

Beyond that, though, while this series is not quite apocalyptic for either party in question, the Friars clearly have more to gain, whether it be gained today or in tomorrow’s rematch at Schneider Arena. For starters, they have a chance to redo something they had, from their own self-afflicting perspective, muddled up last season.

Recall that, one year and one week ago, PC achieved something fairly close to slashing the Lake Whittemore Monsters on their hostile turf by handing the Wildcats a 5-0 uproar at Schneider Arena. They thus claimed the initial upper hand in the season series, just like what they have going into this afternoon’s face-off.

But a month after that, what might have been gained with enough of an emphatic follow-through was clearly on head coach Bob Deraney’s mind when his pupils spilled a 3-2 decision on the Divine Campus the night before Valentine’s Day. The game itself didn’t look quite so bad on the ice and certainly was not as horrid on the scoreboard as his tone suggested during postgame interviews. But something suggested it was not about that. It was a matter of having invaluable regular season bragging rights within tasting distance and just not grabbing them.

And Deraney knew that, even with the season series merely tied and not yet lost, it was going to be a near-impossible cramming session the following night, what with nine rookies spread out over every position about to embark on their first quest to the Wildcats’ daunting domain. Surprise, surprise, UNH assertively wrested a 4-1 decision that evening, thus amounting to a 10-game winning streak, one that would carry on well through the Hockey East playoffs, including one more fatal infliction on the Friars in the semifinal.

It’s not easy to implant effective speedbumps when a team like New Hampshire has momentum. But in hindsight, the Friars nearly had a bonfire that could have captured on satellite radar last February 13. Instead, what Deraney termed “overconfidence” slowed them down and ironically, overconfidence rapidly gave way to underconfidence –equally detrimental.

But as last month’s revolutionary win implied, this is a PC team one year more mature on every front. And they are, for once, showing signs that they really could “peak” at an ideal time. Momentum is plainly on their side, but they could use a little more of it, so even discounting what happened in the previous month, winning one game this weekend against the No. 3-ranked Wildcats would be more than enough to sustain, if not elevate the posture of the No. 9-ranked Friars.

Then again, in terms of the WHEA pennant race, the fourth-seeded Friars are a point behind the third-seeded Wildcats, so not even a split would alter that scenario. Not to mention, UNH has a whopping four games in hand on a suddenly floundering second-place Boston College team and five games in hand on top dog Northeastern. If the Friars do not catch them now, they may never.

To reiterate a recent history lesson, New Hampshire went on a sonic streak last year after their loss at Schneider and have made a similar habit of going near-perfect in the final phases of the regular season. So if anybody wants to try their luck at the Hockey East playoff championship somewhere other than the Whittemore Center, it is incumbent on the Friars to expose another scale of vulnerability on the Wildcats this weekend. Afterwards, it will be up to five other teams on the agenda to keep imposing tiny wounds while the Cats are still not walking fully upright.

But in terms of their own cause, the Friars, already with the ultimate token of confidence and a fine addition to that confidence in the form of long-awaited national recognition, need to make sure they use their newfound conviction wisely. If they abuse it, like they have in the past, they might lose it.

Just the same, though, anything they garner this weekend in the point column will do nothing but help them. They just need to be ready to combat an indubitably vengeful, emotionally reinforced opponent.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com