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Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Hockey

PC women crack the Sulyma code
Pinches of production were enough this time

BOSTON- Could Leah Sulyma, in lieu of the Olympic-bound starlet Florence Schelling, really be good enough to help Northeastern land a high seed in the Hockey East playoff race?

To paraphrase a Geico ad, does a full-blooded Bostonian have trouble with the letter R?

The junior stopper entered yesterday’s home tangle with the Friars at 5-0-1 in six full-length appearances on the year, coupled with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage, and two shutouts. So long as Sulyma keeps that up, and so long as she gets sufficient padding from her peers, the Hub Huskies should remain reckonable in the national polls and have as good a chance as anybody to host the WHEA championship.

But based on yesterday’s upshot, Northeastern will also need to make good of a classic late-season wake-up call.

The Friars, who learned a hard lesson themselves the last time they faced Northeastern by spilling a 3-0 lead en route to a 4-3 loss, reversed the roles yesterday at Matthews Arena. They trailed, 1-0, from the sixth minute of the first period until Ashley Cottrell and Nicole Anderson each struck at 10:54 and 17:19 of the third, respectively, to snag an exhilarating 2-1 victory.

In doing so, Providence also reversed the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in the Hockey East standings. With 24 conference points, they shall enjoy sole claim to the throne for at least one day, pending Connecticut’s results with New Hampshire this afternoon.

More critically, unlike last week in a pair of 2-1 falters to Vermont and Harvard, the Friars proved they could get by on a few slivers of offensive results. And just in time for that point in the year when obsessive-defensive epidemia seems to envelop the entire Hockey East coast.

True, for about 50 minutes, PC –which discharged a total of 60 shot attempts, 32 on net- left the reading on the intense-o-meter alone by whiffing on chance after chance. And they delayed their eventual go-ahead goal a little longer than they might have liked by blowing a 5-on-3 power play late in the third period.

For a time, most ominously, everything was unfolding the exact same way their previous two games went: fall behind, 1-0, in the first, continue to trail through the second, knot it up around the halfway mark of the third, and then…

But Northeastern –four nights removed from spilling a 4-0 lead in the Beanpot semis and just holding fort long enough to win in a shootout- likewise failed to add to their ever-brittle one-goal edge, missing all of their five power play chances that followed Lindsey Berman’s conversion at 5:46 of the first period. Out of the 53 shots dealt by a Husky twig, 33 reached Genevieve Lacasse’s property while another 13 were blocked (four alone by Jean O’Neill), and seven went wide.

As usual, the scoresheet pointed to a heated hookup between these programs. For their sixth meeting in a row, the final score was a one-goal differential. Northeastern owned a teensy edge in the shooting gallery, 33-32, and won a little more than half of the face-offs, 31-27.

But the 60-minute scope is just a tad deceptive. After the Huskies ran up a 16-6 SOG lead in the first period, the Friars landed 13 registered stabs while confining NU to single digits in each of the latter two stanzas.

The way PC put forth its second/third period onslaught, one might have believed that the nearly impenetrable Schelling were still in the crease. The Friars sure hadn’t been invited back in time to face Laura Schuler’s pupils.

Until yesterday, Sulyma had not faced the Friars since the PRO Line of Mari Pehkonen (five points), Alyse Ruff (hat trick), and O’Neill (two helpers) scorched her as part of an 8-3 romp on February 17, 2008.

In fact, in each of her three starts as a frosh versus Providence, even with one winning effort, Sulyma never authorized any fewer than four goals in a single game.

How much has she changed since then? About as much as the Husky program in general, what with the advent of coach Dave Flint and Staff behind the bench, the Swiss Save-ior in the cage, and a substantial litter of promising pups in the scoring department.

One year ago today, in the aftermath of a 3-2 overtime loss to none other than the Friars, home ice for the quarterfinals was already out of the question for Northeastern. And if Hockey East had waited one more year to amend its playoff format, the Huskies would have missed out on the 2009 postseason altogether.

But even though he didn’t credit them directly, it is quite plain that the resurging Huskies were the reason why, after the 2007-08 season, commissioner Joe Bertagna proclaimed “It’s time” to start welcoming six teams rather than four to the playoff bracket.

Ever since, the exponential improvement in the women’s wing of Matthews Arena has not stopped. So much so that, if all of the national rankings were frozen in place for the next month, NU would be within tasting distance of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Only not right this minute. Not unlike the Hockey East leaderboard, the latest check of the PairWise rankings shows that Providence has pole-vaulted to No. 10, one stride ahead of the No. 11 Huskies.

And all that took was a 60-minute supply of resolve, a pair of gritty goals, and for the minute-munching Lacasse to stay so sharp she could endorse Gillette.

The Friars have been here before. They showed spurts of viability in this exact phase last season, and they want to cultivate more from it this time.

Yesterday’s turn of events verified all of that.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com