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Monday, December 6, 2010

On Hockey

Heaven in ’11? Don’t doubt it
Friars close 2010 slate in contender’s form


PC women’s hockey head coach Bob Deraney unintentionally covered his team’s entire outlook when he assessed the 5-1 takedown his team pinned on Connecticut yesterday.

“We’re a pretty good team, that’s what it’s showing,” he said. “And I think our conditioning is very good in that we’re pretty good closers right now. At the beginning of the year, we weren’t closing games out as cleanly or as efficiently as I thought we could, and we’re doing that now.”

Actually, the closure these Friars have flexed is not limited to assertive third periods. Yesterday, whether or not they admit to wanting it, they cultivated a snug surplus of closure as they resurfaced their rivalry with the Huskies, who abruptly dislodged them from last year’s playoffs at Schneider Arena. (Notably, senior defender Leigh Riley did proclaim that “Because of what happened last year, there was a fire lit there.”)

Towering sophomore winger Nicole Anderson, along with classmate and linemate Jessie Vella, brought a timely close to their respective cold streaks as they bolstered a third period surge that morphed a delicate 2-0 edge into the said 5-1 purge. Anderson was pointless in her previous 10 games until she pounced on a misguided UConn pass in her own end, traveled along the far wall, and zapped home a stunning snapper to make it 3-0 with 12:14 to spare.

In the final minute, Vella, with only one point to her credit in the previous 10 outings, played a skating Speedy Gonzalez as she took the puck on a protracted circle tour around the Huskies’ cage and into the high slot, then handed it to Rebecca Morse. Vella’s toil earned her an assist when Anderson tilted Morse’s point shot home.

Now with four weeks free from game action, Anderson and Vella splashed their respective droughts at a well-advised time. They can join their team in feeling a collectively seamless psyche made possible by a 13-5-1 record and carry-over four-game win streak.

That’s where this closure motif beams at its brightest. First halves have been the perennial bane of this Skating Sorority since its last merry March in 2005. It was always about passively accepting growing pains, thawing out from those, and then cramming in vain for an NCAA tournament passport.

But when this group reconvenes for practice after the December deceleration, the objective will not be improvement. It will be enhancement.

“I think it’s a well-earned break,” said Deraney. “But it’s also an opportunity for us to get even better. We learned a lot about ourselves in the first half here. We have to increase our conditioning and also some systematic and technical plays. We’re really looking forward to using the next four weeks as a great benefit to springboard us into a terrific second half.”

Development-wise and results-wise, Providence is still a few conspicuous strides behind the likes of Boston College and Boston University, the aptly anointed favorites in the Hockey East pennant race.

The Friars will want a little more depth to complement its tireless top six –led by Kate Bacon, who potted her 14th goal and second game-winner of the year yesterday; highlighted in part by co-captain Alyse Ruff’s team-leading 13 assists and league-best plus-19 rating; and stressed by a handful of career years (Bacon, Abby Gauthier) and a radiant rookie in Corinne Buie. None of them –nor Ashley Cottrell nor Laura Veharanta- need to change anything, but a champion can’t subsist on two lines alone.

In a related vein, they certainly want to shore up their power play, which has converted a modest 15 out of 96 aggregate chances.

The reinsertion of co-captain Jean O’Neill will help on both fronts. O’Neill, confined to the sidelines since Game 2 of opening weekend with a lower body injury, will wisely treat the next month as a mini-summer to focus solely on replenishing her game. Not to mention, belatedly building on her opening night hat trick against Robert Morris and her 29-30-59 scoring transcript in 104 career games.

“We expect Jean to be back the next game we play,” Deraney said. “She should be a sight for sore eyes, and I hope that’ll be the case.

“She’s worked extremely hard to get back. She was real close, but it’s not worth it to get her back too early, especially when we have this month to really solidify her conditioning and physical strength and ability. So it’ll be a nice shot in the arm for a second-half run.”

Come what may, the Friars now have an irreproachable winning percentage of .711, good for seventh-best in the nation. They are No. 8 in the way of offense (3.26 goals per game) and barely No. 9 on defense (1.89 goals allowed per game, trailing three teams each with a 1.88 median).

Suddenly, an at-large bid to the Elite Eight is anything but an apparition. And the Friars, currently third in the conference standings behind the Comm. Ave. cohabitants, will have games in hand on everybody except Maine when they return for the 14 contests yet to come.

On the one hand, they are still guaranteed nothing in this overpopulated landscape of contenders. Then again, almost nothing but preventable complacency can drop this promising vase to total shards.

“I know everybody’s going to take care of themselves,” said Riley. “We know how to prepare in the off-time and I think we’re going to come back stronger.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com