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Monday, December 27, 2010

On Hockey

PC women should have Patriotic attitude

Just to deck this ho-hum point out of the way, Bob Deraney is hardly a duplicate of Bill Belichick, and for that reason the New England football press corps should feel free to envy this author.

Public personas aside, the coach of the PC women’s hockey team would be advised to emulate the approach of the Patriots’ skipper as he pilots his pupils into 2011. The circumstances and resources at hand are similar enough.

In the growingly distant wake of three titles in four seasons, the Patriots have not hoisted a Lombardi Trophy since 2005. Likewise, the once-dynastic Friars are going on five years without a Hockey East pennant or an NCAA tournament passport.

As is mandated at the college level and as is practically natural in a 21st century sports world where so few athlete-franchise marriages have any sanctity, PC and New England have undergone a gradual personnel overhaul since they were last on top of their respective leagues. (Although the hockey gods know if Deraney could keep sidekicks Karen Thatcher and Erin Normore in uniform beyond practice the same way Tom Brady, when healthy, has been a mainstay at quarterback, he would.)

And just like the newly confirmed AFC regular season champions, the 2010-11 Friars were indubitably competitive before they went into action, but have since achieved enough to pleasantly surprise even themselves.

For the better part of their slowly dying four-week holiday, they have enjoyed being No. 9 in USA Today/USA Hockey’s national leaderboard and a tie for eighth with North Dakota in the uscho.com poll. They own the sixth best overall record in the country at 13-5-1 for a .711 winning percentage. Only Cornell, Wisconsin, Boston University, Mercyhurst, and Boston College are living larger. The almighty likes of Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth are a miniscule stride behind PC, but a stride behind nonetheless.

When sized up with the other 33 Division I programs in the country, the Friars are a respectable No. 9 on the penalty kill. Their offense is seventh-best with 3.26 goals per game and defense is No. 8, allowing only 1.89 opposing strikes per night.

The only team stat pining for an upgrade is the power play, which has converted a mere 15 of 96 opportunities in PC’s first 19 games.

Which cracks open the most pivotal Patriots parallel at hand. This generation of Deraney’s pupils has yet to hallmark itself. It will not until it stamps fresh numerals on the NCAA tournament banner that glides over the team’s defensive zone at Schneider Arena.

Furthermore, although their posture and pace in the national standings could arguably warrant an at-large bid, the Friars will need at least one more dollop of punch to hack through what’s left of the regular season.

And the half-New Year’s champagne, half-leftover fruitcake news is this: the most taxing phase of the homestretch comes first. Minute-munching goaltender Genevieve Lacasse will be living a hard-earned dream with Team Canada at the MLP Cup while her college companions pay a two-night visit to the exponentially improving Maine Black Bears this weekend. Likewise, while the Scarborough Save-ior is wrapping up her business trip to Switzerland on Jan. 9, Boston University will still have sizzlers Marie-Philip Poulin and Jenn Wakefield back on campus raring to host Providence.

No matter how much loot the unripe Christina England and/or Nina Riley can safeguard, or how many a strike force complete with healed co-captain Jean O’Neill can whittle away, one would like to think the Friars will gain something intangible out of the next three games. And whatever that is, it can come in gratifying use over the next 11 ventures before the ice chips settle on the playoff picture.

The question is, how gratifying? It all depends on what they pick up to build on both in the Hockey East standings and on their national resume, a priority far more vital than the former.

Yes, they theoretically go hand-in-hand. The higher PC finishes within the league, the more reverence it is bound to garner from the soon-to-be selection committee.

But even if PC made good of home ice advantage and took two of its three unopened meetings from Boston College, odds are the first-place Eagles are not going to concede many more points to the rest of the league. And even with a four-point gap and two games in hand on BU, a win on Jan. 9 still does not assure a permanent pole-vault into first-round bye territory.

So instead of overexerting on the two anointed aristocrats of Hockey East, the Friars should focus a little more on asserting itself against fellow mid-to-heavyweight Northeastern when they meet late next month. It should be sure to remind the Black Bears that they still have a few more rungs to climb. It should not shy away from kicking ice chips over rival New Hampshire while they’re down. And, of course, they ought to consider the concept of sweeping the season series with the downright disappointing Vermont.

They do enough of that, and the Friars can be a thrilling third-place team, one that could make Boss Bertagna justifiably proud of his league’s progression.

Of course, they are free to make their case to crash the presumptive Comm. Ave. party on the first weekend of March. But before they get there, perhaps they’d like to go up secure in the notion of having an at-large bid within tasting distance.

That’s where Belichick could rightly envy Deraney, for the latter might not even need a conference championship trophy, just a return to the exclusive Elite Eight, to replenish his sense of excellence.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com