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Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Hockey

Statement starts from the top
Deraney’s award puts crowning touch on playoff hype

Not so surprisingly, there was a substantial sprinkling of individual accolades to go around the PC women’s hockey team at the Providence Marriott banquet room last night. Five Skating Friars were among the 18 honorees named to the WHEA’s three All-Star squads, making the regular season champions the most broadly represented program on that ballot.

But none of those –First-Team forward Ashley Cottrell, Second-Teamers Genevieve Lacasse, Jean O’Neill, and Amber Yung, and honorable mention Alyse Ruff- jutted quite like head coach Bob Deraney, who garnered an arguably overdue laurel as the league’s top skipper.

In nabbing his first such honor in 11 years at PC, Deraney has personified the same struggle-and-triumph script he and his pupils hope to wrap up in today’s semifinal and tomorrow’s conference championship. He indubitably had ample hordes of legitimate competition for the prize he claimed last night.

It was certainly tough to overlook, say, the likes of Northeastern co-coaches Linda Lundigran and Laura McAuliffe, who not only stood in for their boss Dave Flint while he served as Mark Johnson’s Olympic sidekick all season, but guided the still-burgeoning Huskies to 15 weeks’ worth of national poll membership.

Boston University’s Brian Durocher would not have been a laughable candidate, either, seeing how he has kept the Terriers on the cusp of the Top 10 and witnessed a 5-0-3 stretch run to the conference semis. And maybe if his players had perked up one or two weeks sooner and salvaged a long-craved playoff berth, Tim Bothwell of Vermont might have surpassed his peers on the ballot.

Those are all good, but the reason Deraney conquered them all is the same reason Russian and Scandinavian militaries used to turn the table in their winter campaigns. It was good old Generals January and February.

After sitting at a superficially distressing 4-7-6 at the halfway mark of their regular season, the Friars regrouped to go 1-0-1 in a fleeting December, that win being an icebreaking 4-1 victory at former nemesis New Hampshire. On the other half of a three-week holiday respite, Providence jostled with little disruption on a 10-3-2 stretch run.

In recent years, Deraney has grown nominally accustomed to weaving a promising second half out of an, at best, so-so first half. But in terms of initial desperation and subsequent confidence, neither half has been quite as extreme as they both were in 2009-10.

It has even reached a point where Deraney is willing to outright put a proud “Well Deserved” label on the regular season trophy his students sealed up two weeks ago at Vermont. Although, in combining the immediate past and the immediate future, his assessment still contains plenty of customary caution (as is expected of a seasoned Professor of Puck).

“Do I think we’re the best team in the league? I do think we’re the best team in the league,” Deraney recently professed. “But that really doesn’t mean anything if you don’t come and put on your best performance when you need it the most, and that’s what we’re focusing on.

“All year long, we’ve been focusing on one thing and that’s to play a perfect game.

“And we’ve been playing playoff games for a very long time now. When you have a record of 4-7-6, every game has meaning. We’re used to playing under these conditions.”

That has to be the most encouraging point for Friartownies who will stroll onto campus for today’s semifinal engagement with Connecticut. As of last, PC was in a knot with the Terriers for No. 11 in the PairWise rankings, three thick and distant rungs short of an at-large passport to the NCAA tournament. Even a berth in tomorrow’s title tilt would guarantee diddlysquat in that department.

Translation: by their perennially lofty standards, the Friars are, for all intents and purposes, still under the same conditions they have been under since Thanksgiving. If they are to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005, there is next to no room for error.

By all counts, Deraney is well aware of that. It seems his personal hunk of hardware –which he can now add to the Vincent C. Dore award he will receive from PC’s athletic department next month- was not even part of his checklist, which is only one-third completed anyway.

“I think there are three jewels in a college hockey season,” he concluded. “You’ve got the regular season championship, the tournament championship, and the NCAA championship. We’re very excited and proud to have acquired that first jewel. That’s a great accomplishment, but that’s behind us now.”

So, too, is all of the buildup to the playoffs. Deraney started that some three months ago by building up conviction in his would-be disheartened pupils. He ended it last night with at least one extra home game on tap and a hard-earned coach’s crown in his possession.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com