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Sunday, February 21, 2010

On Hockey

A-captain at her A-game
O’Neill pilots clinching weekend for PC women

Burlington, Vt.- Thrice in their two-game series this weekend, the Vermont Catamounts pulled even on the scoreboard with the Friars. Yet none of those knots –two of which were drawn in Friday’s affair, then one more yesterday afternoon- would survive, and the chief culprit behind that was PC junior forward Jean O’Neill.

In Friday’s 4-2 triumph at the Gutterson Fieldhouse, O’Neill had planted 2-1 and 3-2 advantages within two-and-a-half minutes of the Vermont equalizers. Her heroics yesterday took a tad longer and were a little less direct, but after point patroller Christie Jensen absorbed O’Neill’s shipment and drilled in a power play conversion with 12:31 to spare in the third period, the Friars never looked back.

None other than O’Neill, who had also assisted on linemate Jess Cohen’s icebreaker at 11:11 of yesterday’s opening frame, tossed in a cathartic empty netter to finalize a 5-2 win, seal herself a vocal 3-2-5 weekend scoring log, and help wrap up the regular season title for her team.

Like the throne of the playoff bracket, O’Neill’s claim to the Friars’ assistant captaincy didn’t really need any verification when, with exactly 100 ticks to spare, Catamount goalie Kristen Olychuk vacated her crease so the six-pack attack could scramble in hopes of deleting a 4-2 deficit. But she threw in the gravy goal anyway, just in case, with 1:12 remaining on the clock.

But why not? O’Neill might as well have been the one to sprinkle a can’t-hurt helping of Hershey’s on this sundae. She not only anchored the scoring pace that kept PC in good stock of breathing room throughout the weekend, but also personified the weekend’s milestone theme.

Friday night was O’Neill’s 100th career game. And when she pulled the Friars ahead, 2-1, in the second period of that game, she both notched her 50th collegiate point and 25th of this season, thus equating everything she had aggregated as a freshman and sophomore.

And now, with all the ice chips settled on the regular season, her totals read a solid 13-16-29 through 34 games played. And under the watch of head coach Bob Deraney, one who is often apt to preach the concept of “peaking at the right time,” O’Neill finished her February with four goals and six points in three games.

Dating back to January 3, when the Friars commenced an active 10-3-1 hot streak, O’Neill has appeared on all but three scoresheets and charged up a cumulative 10 goals and 19 points. That alone is more than what she compiled in 36 games (10 goals, seven assists) as a promising rookie. And it is more than enough to throw irremovable ice chips on her spotty sophomore campaign that was devoted mostly to rebuilding her identity in wake of a preseason injury.

It’s also enough to excuse the two penalties she took over the weekend, which is striking considering she had logged merely four minor infractions in her first 32 games before the Friars made their excursion up here.

It’s even enough to cloud the fact that, this weekend aside, O’Neill has not quite been a first-place finisher in any aspect of the game.

Uncannily, just as she is one platform step below Colleen Martin in the leadership rankings, O’Neill is No. 2 in most every vital category on the PC stats sheet. She continues to trail only Ashley Cottrell in overall scoring (31 points to 29, 14 goals to 13, and 17 helpers to 16). Her plus-8 rating is second-best among all skating Friars behind Arianna Rigano (plus-9).

O’Neill has her team’s second heaviest shot collection with 97 SOG and the second-best accuracy with a 13.4 connectivity rate. Only linemate and classmate Alyse Ruff has pelted the opposing goalie more often with 99 registered stabs and only the top gun Cottrell has demonstrated better archery with an 18.4 shooting percentage. And only Ruff and Nicole Anderson can claim to have scored more power play goals (6) than O’Neill (5).

But there is at least one column to which she can claim the crown. Her second go-ahead goal on Friday eventually morphed into her team-leading third game-winning strike. And then as of yesterday, with the assist on Jensen’s winner, she has now had a hand in six of the Friars’ last 10 deciders.

So while she may not be in the mix for the league’s Player of the Year laurel, and is not even guaranteed MVP honors amongst her peers, O’Neill will most likely take her second Hockey East Player of the Week laurel tomorrow. She will do so for a leading clutch performance in what so far has been the most consequential weekend of the Friars’ season.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com