• Check out the Free Press founder's new Rhode Island/New England sports blog
  • http://providencesportsscribe.blogspot.com/

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Hockey

Penalties couldn’t kill them
PC PK stops bleeding, makes shootout win possible

Regardless of where one’s party loyalties lie, this was yet another turn of events to send everybody into Tevye “On the one hand…on the other hand” mode.

Last night’s upshot –a 3-3 tie/1-0 shootout triumph in favor of the PC women over Connecticut at Schneider Arena- could have gone better for either team. Yet it wasn’t quite as devastating as possible, either.

More than anything, Friars head coach Bob Deraney took comfort in knowing that, by the time the ice chips settle on this evening’s rematch at Freitas Ice Forum, his team will either be tied for first place or have further augmented its lead in the Hockey East point column.

“It might be one more point, but what it does is it gives us a full game ahead of UConn, which is really important going into (today’s) game,” said Deraney. “It was a gutsy effort by our kids, and we have faced a lot of adversity, some self-imposed, some not self-imposed. But I really admire our kids dug down and found a way to hang on and to get the extra point.”

If they had only taken one less penalty in the third period, instead of letting UConn pull even through a 5-on-3 conversion with 9:29 to spare, the Friars most likely would be savoring a three-point edge over their team breakfast this morning. Still, the Huskies could have claimed one more favorable bounce in the time they had left. Or, for that matter, they might not have let Providence usurp the momentum late in the first and subsequently fallen behind in the second. In that case, they might have had first place to themselves right now.

Instead, the one-point differential remained constant through 65 minutes, and Laura Veharanta’s backhand spooner in the fourth round of the shootout nudged the Friars up by just one more notch.

Indubitably, however, Veharanta would never have had the game on her stick like that if, say, Connecticut had stood up on their wave in the third and seized a 4-3 edge in the 96 seconds that remained on Jessie Vella’s penalty after Michelle Binning’s equalizer terminated Christie Jensen’s sentence.

This was hardly the first time the Friars have pushed their luck by letting a discipline detonator threaten a third period lead. But based on their record when leading after 40 minutes (11-0-4 with last night’s tie), it has yet to knock them entirely over the edge.

The drama commenced at 2:02 of the closing frame when Kate Bacon –whose line with Abby Gauthier and Arianna Rigano put forth one of their most outstanding efforts all season- negated a would-be power play when she decided to avenge Jessica Lutz’ illicit bodycheck with a shove after the whistle.

Both Lutz and Bacon were jailed for their respective infractions, and the Huskies got the better of the 4-on-4 as Maude Blain inserted her second goal of the night and sawed the difference to 3-2 at 3:58.

From there, the Friars were forced to kill a two-minute checking minor issued to the towering Nicole Anderson at 6:01. Then, within 28 seconds of Anderson’s release, Jensen was flagged for the same infraction. Still another 36 ticks and Vella was off for hooking, granting UConn a savory 84-second 5-on-3 segment.

Guess what happened? Huskies’ top gun Michelle Binning, seconds after being foiled by PC stopper Genevieve Lacasse, tried the same backdoor maneuver again and shelved an equalizer.

On the other hand, that’s as far as they got on their power play, which ultimately went 2-for-6 on the night thanks to Blain’s first period icebreaker.

“It’s always key,” said Deraney of the PK brigade’s crucial persistence. “You play the situations that are dealt to you. We had a lot of different situations dealt to us. Some we played well, some we played poorly.

“Giving up on a four-on-four goal isn’t a good thing, going down 5-on-3 and giving up a 5-on-3 goal isn’t a good thing, but we’ll be more prepared for them the next time we play.”

The Friars’ most valuable penalty killer last night may have ultimately been their offense. That is, through three unanswered goals between the final minute of the opening frame 14:51 of the second period, they sculpted just enough collateral that UConn couldn’t muster another lead.

Furthermore, there was a fairly diverse array of point-getters on the scoresheet. Rigano inserted her seventh strike of the season and granted the likes of Bacon and Jensen a helper apiece with 50.6 seconds till intermission.

In the middle frame, Jackie Duncan, barely an hour removed from her pre-game Senior Night celebration, buried Goal No. 1 of her turbulent campaign, assists going to Ashley Cottrell and Amber Yung. And about 10 minutes later, Lacasse catapulted a clear to Vella in neutral ice and watched as Vella’s turnaround shipment to Alyse Ruff turned into a freak power play conversion, Ruff’s intended centering pass from the goal line banking in off the stockings of goalie Alex Garcia.

Translation: at least one member of each forward line –including all four centers- plus two defenders and even the Scarborough Save-ior (now with three career assists) made a tangible contribution.

And that, unlike spilling a 3-1 lead in the third, is a good thing for the Friars.

“I think we’ve solidified three and a half lines, and I’m pretty excited about that,” Deraney said. “If you want to be successful this time of year, you’ve got to be more than a one-trick pony. Our team is developing, it is getting stronger and that is exactly what you want.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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

Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Hockey

PC women crack the Sulyma code
Pinches of production were enough this time

BOSTON- Could Leah Sulyma, in lieu of the Olympic-bound starlet Florence Schelling, really be good enough to help Northeastern land a high seed in the Hockey East playoff race?

To paraphrase a Geico ad, does a full-blooded Bostonian have trouble with the letter R?

The junior stopper entered yesterday’s home tangle with the Friars at 5-0-1 in six full-length appearances on the year, coupled with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage, and two shutouts. So long as Sulyma keeps that up, and so long as she gets sufficient padding from her peers, the Hub Huskies should remain reckonable in the national polls and have as good a chance as anybody to host the WHEA championship.

But based on yesterday’s upshot, Northeastern will also need to make good of a classic late-season wake-up call.

The Friars, who learned a hard lesson themselves the last time they faced Northeastern by spilling a 3-0 lead en route to a 4-3 loss, reversed the roles yesterday at Matthews Arena. They trailed, 1-0, from the sixth minute of the first period until Ashley Cottrell and Nicole Anderson each struck at 10:54 and 17:19 of the third, respectively, to snag an exhilarating 2-1 victory.

In doing so, Providence also reversed the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in the Hockey East standings. With 24 conference points, they shall enjoy sole claim to the throne for at least one day, pending Connecticut’s results with New Hampshire this afternoon.

More critically, unlike last week in a pair of 2-1 falters to Vermont and Harvard, the Friars proved they could get by on a few slivers of offensive results. And just in time for that point in the year when obsessive-defensive epidemia seems to envelop the entire Hockey East coast.

True, for about 50 minutes, PC –which discharged a total of 60 shot attempts, 32 on net- left the reading on the intense-o-meter alone by whiffing on chance after chance. And they delayed their eventual go-ahead goal a little longer than they might have liked by blowing a 5-on-3 power play late in the third period.

For a time, most ominously, everything was unfolding the exact same way their previous two games went: fall behind, 1-0, in the first, continue to trail through the second, knot it up around the halfway mark of the third, and then…

But Northeastern –four nights removed from spilling a 4-0 lead in the Beanpot semis and just holding fort long enough to win in a shootout- likewise failed to add to their ever-brittle one-goal edge, missing all of their five power play chances that followed Lindsey Berman’s conversion at 5:46 of the first period. Out of the 53 shots dealt by a Husky twig, 33 reached Genevieve Lacasse’s property while another 13 were blocked (four alone by Jean O’Neill), and seven went wide.

As usual, the scoresheet pointed to a heated hookup between these programs. For their sixth meeting in a row, the final score was a one-goal differential. Northeastern owned a teensy edge in the shooting gallery, 33-32, and won a little more than half of the face-offs, 31-27.

But the 60-minute scope is just a tad deceptive. After the Huskies ran up a 16-6 SOG lead in the first period, the Friars landed 13 registered stabs while confining NU to single digits in each of the latter two stanzas.

The way PC put forth its second/third period onslaught, one might have believed that the nearly impenetrable Schelling were still in the crease. The Friars sure hadn’t been invited back in time to face Laura Schuler’s pupils.

Until yesterday, Sulyma had not faced the Friars since the PRO Line of Mari Pehkonen (five points), Alyse Ruff (hat trick), and O’Neill (two helpers) scorched her as part of an 8-3 romp on February 17, 2008.

In fact, in each of her three starts as a frosh versus Providence, even with one winning effort, Sulyma never authorized any fewer than four goals in a single game.

How much has she changed since then? About as much as the Husky program in general, what with the advent of coach Dave Flint and Staff behind the bench, the Swiss Save-ior in the cage, and a substantial litter of promising pups in the scoring department.

One year ago today, in the aftermath of a 3-2 overtime loss to none other than the Friars, home ice for the quarterfinals was already out of the question for Northeastern. And if Hockey East had waited one more year to amend its playoff format, the Huskies would have missed out on the 2009 postseason altogether.

But even though he didn’t credit them directly, it is quite plain that the resurging Huskies were the reason why, after the 2007-08 season, commissioner Joe Bertagna proclaimed “It’s time” to start welcoming six teams rather than four to the playoff bracket.

Ever since, the exponential improvement in the women’s wing of Matthews Arena has not stopped. So much so that, if all of the national rankings were frozen in place for the next month, NU would be within tasting distance of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Only not right this minute. Not unlike the Hockey East leaderboard, the latest check of the PairWise rankings shows that Providence has pole-vaulted to No. 10, one stride ahead of the No. 11 Huskies.

And all that took was a 60-minute supply of resolve, a pair of gritty goals, and for the minute-munching Lacasse to stay so sharp she could endorse Gillette.

The Friars have been here before. They showed spurts of viability in this exact phase last season, and they want to cultivate more from it this time.

Yesterday’s turn of events verified all of that.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com