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Friday, February 12, 2010

On Hockey

Final four has tripped them in the past
PC women vie to maintain momentum for homestretch

Paradoxically enough, the Friars are at a stance where they have more to gain and all the more to lose.

Although they are indulging in sole possession of the WHEA’s first-place throne heading into this evening’s Senior Night festivities, which shall precede the regular season home finale versus second-place Connecticut, they are hardly guaranteed to get bonus ice here for the Hockey East championship. In fact, it is not certain that they will even gain the privilege of bypassing the conference quarterfinals. And it is not even a given that, if they were to hypothetically fall short of those two bye slots, they would be at home for the round robin.

With four regular season league games still to come for each Hockey East team, Providence has but a four-point upper hand on fifth-place Boston University. Almost anything can still happen to anybody, for better or worse.

Not sure whether or not Wolfgang Puck ever frets about the specter of dropping a precious tray on the floor in the middle of a daylong cooking session, and thus ruining a would-be matchless meal. But one ought to think that that is the type of concealed anxiety brewing in Friar Puck’s head right now.

“It’s been a long time since Providence was in first place in Hockey East with two weeks left in the season,” said head coach Bob Deraney.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position,” he continued, only to subsequently caution, “but what does it matter if we don’t come prepared for the next game?”

Or come prepared for the next four games, for that matter. In each of PC’s last two seasons, the last four ventures of the regular season have turned into nothing but unwelcome dream-squelchers and drama-stirrers.

Both in 2007-08 and 2008-09, the Friars went 0-3-1 to close out the Hockey East playoff race. That didn’t hurt them a whole lot two years ago –the last time the league had a four-team playoff bracket- seeing as they were third in the standings before Hockey East Game No. 18 and in the exact same perch after Game No. 21.

Then again, it hardly helped their cause to stall like that, either. They ultimately were not assured a postseason passport until they drew a 2-2 knot with Boston College in the regular season finale. And they certainly put unneeded dents on their national transcript, which went from three games above .500 to an iffy 16-16-4.

Last year’s temporary, but terribly timed nosedive exposed even more noticeable damages. At this point in their 2008-09 schedule, the Friars were well within hooking distance of a first-round bye. But like the year prior, they spilled four points in a home-and-home with New Hampshire, then lost Part I of a series with BC. A subsequent shootout victory and a UNH triumph over UConn would be needed on the last day just to give them home ice for the quarterfinal.

Reminded of those rancid times, Deraney tranquilly insisted that this year’s installment of his capstone class is “completely different” from its two immediate predecessors. Through their sound 9-2-2 run since the advent of December, which has smoothly catapulted them into the national polls for the first time in four years, the Friars have verified his point so far. And even if they are remotely different in the dusking days of this regular season from previous homestretches, that would count for something.

And maybe now is the time to recall that, a week prior to the season, two Hockey East coaches anonymously picked Providence to finish first. There stands a clear-cut chance that, in another nine days, those two coaches could come to hate being right.

But if that is to happen, then yes, PC will have to be “completely different” in the clutch like Deraney says. If they can win at least three of their final four games –which, based on the standards this group has set, is not necessarily asking much- that ought to cement first place for them. After all, New Hampshire trails by two points and even if they won out and pulled a knot in the point column, the Friars would tip the scale by virtue of head-to-head supremacy.

As far as this particular weekend is concerned, with an equally hot adversary from UConn at hand, the NCAA consequences for both parties are every bit as vital as the potential impact on the Pangaea-like jumble that is the upper tier of the Hockey East standings.

Only this past Sunday did Friar alumna Heather Linstad’s pupils endure their first loss in 2010, submitting to UNH, 4-1. But they were 10-0-1 in their previous 11 outings, during which time sophomore goaltender Alex Garcia has emerged as an enviable backbone and her skating mates have bagged enough biscuits to place themselves at an encouraging No. 7 in every major poll.

From a Providence standpoint, the Pairwise leaderboard is the anti-Hockey East. They are tied with Northeastern for No. 8 in that department and can leapfrog UConn if they simply get the better of them these next two nights.

If that happens, they will be that much closer to earning extra tune-up time for the conference semifinals. Maybe more vitally, they will be that much closer to compensating all the bumps and bruises that have come with playing more than half of their schedule against certified national contenders. PC, which is 13-9-8 altogether, is 7-6-3 in 16 bouts with ranked opponents.

The Huskies, while ranked higher than they have ever been at any point in their 10 years as a varsity program, are a less encouraging 2-4-1 versus ranked teams. And they have only faced one of those since New Year’s, that being the victorious Wildcats from five days ago.

Advantage: Providence? Well, maybe.

“I think our schedule has been a little bit tougher than theirs,” mused Deraney. “I’m hoping that, because we always try to get the toughest schedule, we’re going to be a bit more prepared.

“But what happened in the past is irrelevant.”

That last point can prove quite refreshing for the Friars. Provided, of course, they make sure to repeat the history that was December 2009 and January 2010 more than the history that was February 2008 or February 2009.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com