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Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Hockey

Looking for an exclamation point versus UNH

For the PC women’s hockey team, a sweep of this weekend’s home-and-home engagement with rival New Hampshire sounds idealistic (when does it not?), but a split is perfectly realistic.

Either way, collect a win over the next two days and the overwhelming concept of taking the larger half of the three-game regular season wishbone from the Enemy Epitome would actually come to life. There are few ways on this coast and in this league to stamp a much bigger, bolder statement.

Uncannily enough, today’s 2 p.m. bout at the Whittemore Center is not merely the first Friar-Wildcat twig-lock since Providence made history by claiming the first Hockey East road victory at New Hampshire’s expense. It is the Cats’ first home game since they grudgingly relinquished their nearly seven-and-a-half-year-old streak.

Furthermore, both squads are unbeaten in the six weeks since then, PC having gone 4-0-2, UNH 3-0-0. So who has the greater stake in this?

Well, on a dignity front, the Wildcats have a bit more to lose simply because they have more in their possession. They do not want even a carry-over losing streak on their oft-feared pond, especially if it means giving all the spoils to their timeless rival.

Beyond that, though, while this series is not quite apocalyptic for either party in question, the Friars clearly have more to gain, whether it be gained today or in tomorrow’s rematch at Schneider Arena. For starters, they have a chance to redo something they had, from their own self-afflicting perspective, muddled up last season.

Recall that, one year and one week ago, PC achieved something fairly close to slashing the Lake Whittemore Monsters on their hostile turf by handing the Wildcats a 5-0 uproar at Schneider Arena. They thus claimed the initial upper hand in the season series, just like what they have going into this afternoon’s face-off.

But a month after that, what might have been gained with enough of an emphatic follow-through was clearly on head coach Bob Deraney’s mind when his pupils spilled a 3-2 decision on the Divine Campus the night before Valentine’s Day. The game itself didn’t look quite so bad on the ice and certainly was not as horrid on the scoreboard as his tone suggested during postgame interviews. But something suggested it was not about that. It was a matter of having invaluable regular season bragging rights within tasting distance and just not grabbing them.

And Deraney knew that, even with the season series merely tied and not yet lost, it was going to be a near-impossible cramming session the following night, what with nine rookies spread out over every position about to embark on their first quest to the Wildcats’ daunting domain. Surprise, surprise, UNH assertively wrested a 4-1 decision that evening, thus amounting to a 10-game winning streak, one that would carry on well through the Hockey East playoffs, including one more fatal infliction on the Friars in the semifinal.

It’s not easy to implant effective speedbumps when a team like New Hampshire has momentum. But in hindsight, the Friars nearly had a bonfire that could have captured on satellite radar last February 13. Instead, what Deraney termed “overconfidence” slowed them down and ironically, overconfidence rapidly gave way to underconfidence –equally detrimental.

But as last month’s revolutionary win implied, this is a PC team one year more mature on every front. And they are, for once, showing signs that they really could “peak” at an ideal time. Momentum is plainly on their side, but they could use a little more of it, so even discounting what happened in the previous month, winning one game this weekend against the No. 3-ranked Wildcats would be more than enough to sustain, if not elevate the posture of the No. 9-ranked Friars.

Then again, in terms of the WHEA pennant race, the fourth-seeded Friars are a point behind the third-seeded Wildcats, so not even a split would alter that scenario. Not to mention, UNH has a whopping four games in hand on a suddenly floundering second-place Boston College team and five games in hand on top dog Northeastern. If the Friars do not catch them now, they may never.

To reiterate a recent history lesson, New Hampshire went on a sonic streak last year after their loss at Schneider and have made a similar habit of going near-perfect in the final phases of the regular season. So if anybody wants to try their luck at the Hockey East playoff championship somewhere other than the Whittemore Center, it is incumbent on the Friars to expose another scale of vulnerability on the Wildcats this weekend. Afterwards, it will be up to five other teams on the agenda to keep imposing tiny wounds while the Cats are still not walking fully upright.

But in terms of their own cause, the Friars, already with the ultimate token of confidence and a fine addition to that confidence in the form of long-awaited national recognition, need to make sure they use their newfound conviction wisely. If they abuse it, like they have in the past, they might lose it.

Just the same, though, anything they garner this weekend in the point column will do nothing but help them. They just need to be ready to combat an indubitably vengeful, emotionally reinforced opponent.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Hockey

Dogged Lacasse having better days now

As Genevieve Lacasse goes, so go the Friars. Or perhaps that’s vice versa. Or it may just vary on an unpredictable basis.

This much is certain: in terms of pure achievement, the Scarborough Save-ior is personifying PC's promising U-turn that has herself and her team on a 3-0-1 start to the New Year and a carry-over 4-0-2 run dating back to the advent of December.

Too often in Part I of this season, Lacasse –who easily leads all Hockey Easterners with 606 saves on the year- was in a position rather akin to a loyal wife/mother who does not receive the recognition and rewards she would naturally expect from her constant labor. Such is quite often the anti-glamorous job description of goalkeeping.

After a chill, 19-save shutout on opening night, her fortunes soured to overall mediocrity. While the Friars’ offense was sometimes sufficient, but certainly not always, Lacasse took a prolonged fall below the .500 mark with the team record. That situation might have been a little better if, say, just one or more of those nine overtime games had ended with a PC goal instead of that fourth buzzer which is always more merciful for the two masked-and-padded ladies in question than it is for any skaters who are trying to make the opposing goalie flinch at great cost.

And more goose-eggs? Forget it. Lacasse did confine the opposition to two full-net goals or less in 13 of her first 19 starts, but even that was good enough for merely five wins.

Then again, for all of the mounting unrest and all of the tweaks head coach Bob Deraney made to his lineup during that turbulent period, one thing the skipper let alone was his goalie, whom he removed in favor of backup Christina England merely once for the final five minutes of the Mayor’s Cup mayhem October 25. Immediately after that game, Lacasse was leaned on for the duration of a rigorous stretch that saw Providence confronting a nationally-ranked opponent in eight out of 10 ventures, culminating with the revolutionary 4-1 road overthrow of New Hampshire.

And when the December deceleration was greeted with ambivalence –seeing as the Friars had implicitly compressed the open wound- Lacasse was rewarded as Hockey East’s pick for the short month’s top goaltender.

Since the break, she has consumed 244 minutes and 40 seconds worth of crease time, surrendered a mere seven goals, repelled 117 opposing shots, notched back-to-back Sunday shutouts, and, as of yesterday evening, garnered two consecutive Defensive Player of the Week laurels from the league.

Perhaps most importantly, she has received 15 goals worth of offensive support in these last four games. And while the Friars have repeatedly unloaded about the same loads of ammo as the opposition each night, they are simply tucking home a few more biscuits.

Even last weekend, the egregiously shorthanded Cornell Big Red upheld enough breath to take 25 registered stabs on Saturday and 29 on Sunday while allotting 27 to Providence each day. Cornell was, quite expectably, at its mightiest to start Sunday’s contest, when they wasted little time trying to recompense their 6-3 loss the day prior and ultimately charged up 21 attempts, 14 of them on net.

But to Lacasse’s credit as well as her praetorian guards’, those shots rarely came in immediate succession. Only twice did she have to play two consecutive pucks and another eight times, she simply summoned a whistle. The rest of the time, her teammates shoveled the remnants well away from her property. It all went a long way towards planting an early 1-0 lead and eventually augmenting that lead in the second.

Specific to Lacasse, though, one can already begin to size up a developmental distinction when examining this January compared to last. As a freshman, Lacasse returned from her respite with a recurring fit of numbness. For seven games, PC went on an agonizing loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss pattern, during which Lacasse was even more starkly bipolar. Although she posted two shutouts in that stretch, she was also forked out early from two other games, sat out for the full length of another, and twice surrendered at least four goals, something she had never done in her first three months on the Divine Campus.

Ultimately, she recovered and that proved to be the lone noticeable speedbump on her trek to the ITECH Goaltending Championship and Bauer Rookie of the Year award. Odds are she will not repeat the former title this year even if she can. Northeastern’s Florence Schelling would have to crash like Hoover’s economy, as would New Hampshire’s Kayley Herman for that to be realistic.

But look at the more vital implications. Over her first six appearances back from break last year, Lacasse produced a musty 3.14 goals-against average and an even jerkier .885 save percentage. Conversely, in her most recent six engagements, sandwiching a lengthy holiday, she has averaged 1.62 goals-allowed and a .943 save percentage.

Not to mention, she and the team have an active unbeaten streak of 4-0-2, a foundation for the very type of consistency both parties have long been pining for.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Hockey

Landmark win packs more than trivial implications

The PC women’s hockey PR staff responsibly began to foretell the approach of win No. 600 in the program’s 36-year history well before the initial puck-drop on the 2009-10 campaign.

Only seven more to go, the official game notes’ spread proclaimed prior to the season opener versus Maine, after which it could claim there were only six rungs to climb. One day and one more repression of the Black Bears later, it was a mere five strides.

From that angle, which is one that every fervent Friartownie is sure to assume, Providence should have given rival New Hampshire its first bit of company in the 600-win club a lot sooner than they did. But that would not be the only milestone, nor the most vital on the table, that PC collected in yesterday’s 6-3 lashing of Cornell at Schneider Arena.

Try registering the fact that, on the heels of last week’s 2-0 triumph over Minnesota State, the strictly here-and-now Friars were keen on raking in their first pair of back-to-back wins since the aforementioned Maine sweep three months ago. In fact, they were also vying to win on back-to-back weekends for the first time all season.

One other thing: upon morphing its record to 7-7-8 at yesterday’s final horn, PC is .500 overall for the first time since dipping to 3-4-2 on October 31.

In every case, a better-late-than-never attitude is in order, so take it or leave it. At the moment, the 600-win phenomenon is just a free bonus to a batch of savory on-ice hors d'oeuvres served up at Schneider yesterday.

Though substantially shorthanded (12 skaters dressed) with Laura Fortino, Lauriane Rougeau, and Catherine White all away with Team Canada at the MLP Cup, Cornell came bearing the nation’s sixth-best defense (1.69 goals-against per game), best discipline (nightly median of 6.8 penalty minutes), and topmost penalty kill (47-for-48, or a 97.9 percent success rate).

The Friars would keep their tactical dismantling simple, puncturing the Big Red’s tiny tanks early and exploiting cold goaltender Katie Wilson in her season debut for three strikes on 12 first period shots.

The home offense slightly decelerated for two second period goals, one insurance strike in the third, and a combined 15 registered stabs in the latter 40 minutes, but kept their collateral high while Cornell could only suck in the occasional wind of desperation. That would only be good enough for two tallies on an aggregate 17 shots in the second and third stanzas.

Given the nearly blemish-free face of the Cornell PK, the Friars’ power play brigade might have been forgiven for going 0-for-4 and thus cooling its collective hot streak of 14 conversions in nine ventures, even if yesterday’s upshot were less favorable.

But what really kicked ice chips over the power play letdown were the abundant and timely even-strength goals and the diverse distribution of points across the scoresheet. At least one member of each forward unit –including the whole starting trinity of Jess Cohen, Jean O’Neill, and Alyse Ruff and the entire third line of Kate Bacon, Arianna Rigano, and Jessie Vella- had a point, as did three defenders.

When Bacon –who is scrapping for her old production rate after off-and-on injuries set her back last term- broke the ice at 8:19 of the first, she granted the likes of Leigh Riley and Rigano each their second assist in as many games.

Suddenly roused to a predatory, shark-like sugar rush, the Friars landed two wayside bids off the next face-off before O’Neill spawned the 2-0 edge 96 seconds after Bacon’s connection.

O’Neill submitted a team-leading five SOG, concomitant with her goal and two assists for the best single-game transcript in her college career. By assisting on O’Neill’s goal and subsequently collaborating with the junior A-captain to set up Ruff’s eventual game-winner at 8:37 of the second, Cohen stretched her welcome-back hot streak to four helpers in three games. In turn, Ruff has four firsthand points in the same span and her first three-game scoring tear since about this time last year.

Somewhat Xeroxing the Bacon saga, three other hard-luck grinders made their own day in augmenting PC’s lead to 5-1 before the second intermission and then to a commanding 6-2 early in the third. Senior center Jackie Duncan set up stay-at-home sophomore Christie Jensen’s first career regulation goal with 5:18 to spare in the period. Then, at 3:08 of the closing frame, Abby Gauthier –who entered the game with a minus-6 rating, the worst among all Friar forwards- inserted her fourth goal of the season unassisted.

Chances are, long after the last of the ink for this season has evaporated, the Big Six-oh-oh and the top line’s performance will be yesterday’s two best-remembered aspects. After all, O’Neill and Cohen had multiple points the same way Myia Yates (hat trick), Katie Lachapelle, and Jess Tabb all did in the program’s 400th all-time win over Yale on February 7, 1999. And their centerpiece Ruff was credited with the decider same way current assistant coach Meredith Roth was in Win No. 500 versus Boston College on February 22, 2004.

But more to the pressing matters, PC is finally in a winning rhythm and all-time wins No. 601, 602, 603, etc. will each emit more significance than their immediate predecessors. For starters, today’s task will be rerunning yesterday’s assertive effort, upping the pivotal interleague record to an even 4-4-4, collecting another invaluable knockout of a nationally-ranked opponent (3-5-3), and leaping back over the right side of the .500 fence.

An enriched past always wants to make room for an equally positive present.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com