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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

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Women's Hockey 4, New Hampshire 2

Friars best Wildcats in finishing department

The trends are likely to breach at some point. But for the moment, the PC women’s hockey team is a wholesome 4-0-0 when conceding a 1-0 deficit and 3-0-0 when trailing at the first intermission.

“We’re definitely resilient. There’s no doubt about it,” said head coach Bob Deraney in the wake of yesterday’s rallying 4-2 triumph over New Hampshire at Schneider Arena.

Notorious for sometimes spilling precious points when drunk on their own success and facing a statistically second-rate adversary, the Friars probably needed UNH, now losers of its last seven games, showing up yesterday like novice skiers need a ring of fire before them on their first downhill endeavor. But for once, they didn’t wait to perk up too long; just enough to only give their fans a startled jolt.

The Wildcats struck first at exactly 3:00 and held fort until long after the Zamboni’s first shift, and they later deleted a 2-1 deficit while the Friars suffered from a brief hangover after scoring their own go-ahead goal. But for the climactic phases of the game, the refined Rhode Islanders imposed their will on the survivors of the bygone Granite State Goddesses.

“You have to take into consideration the mentality of both teams,” said Deraney. “UNH is on an uncharacteristic losing streak right now, and I’m just glad it didn’t end today against us.

“The game played out the way I thought it would play out. I wasn’t really nervous about the first five minutes, but I thought after that, we dominated the game from start to finish.”

Based on their level of inspiration in those first five-plus minutes, the Friars all but warranted a pre-holiday pep talk from Matt Foley the Motivational Santa. The Wildcats registered the game’s first five shot attempts, three on net, and one in the net at the three-minute mark on a much-too-facilely executed play. Forward Kristine Horn, standing unsupervised on PC’s porch, whiffed on her attempt to tip in Courtney Sheary’s bullet from the far point, but linemate Julie Allen had no trouble swooping in and spooning the rebound through the roof.

Providence didn’t test opposing goaltender Kayley Herman (27 saves) until near the end of the sixth minute, though from there until intermission they led the shooting gallery, 8-2. Unable to establish anything close to a sustained flurry, the Friars’ strike force spent the day sniffing out seams and charging for the gusto on fleeting rushes.

Herman was ready for them all, until there was 8:40 gone in the middle frame and less than a minute to spare on PC’s second power play. Goaltender Genevieve Lacasse (17 saves) wiggled out of her crease to field a UNH clear and lobbed the puck to a lone ranger Corinne Buie in the far alley. On cue, Buie and Kate Bacon concocted a two-on-one rush, culminating in Bacon one-timing Buie’s cross-ice dish along the near post for the equalizer.

“We were just forechecking really hard the whole time,” said Buie, who ultimately scored three assists and took five shots on net. “To finally put that one in, it really helped us as we tried to keep rolling from there.”

Amidst their first of three penalty kills, the Friars savored and squandered their first lead of the day. Ashley Cottrell morphed a turnover in her own end into a shorthanded breakaway with 7:53 remaining in the second period. But one play and 27 ticks later, Hannah Armstrong buried her own interception around the Providence cage for the 2-2 knot.

“I think we handed them both goals,” Deraney said. “We had the puck on our stick on the first one and we batted it right to their kid and the second one we deflected in front of our own net. So I think we scored five goals and assisted on the sixth.”

In the third period, though, all of the remaining salsa-based biscuits were force-fed to the floundering Wildcats, who have now allowed more closing frame goals (19) than what they’ve authorized in the first 40 minutes (17).

Point patroller Jen Friedman drilled in her second consecutive game-winner at the 3:30 mark, beating Herman over the blocker on a straightaway blast. And a mere 2:16 of game time later, Laura Veharanta finalized the 4-2 difference, cutting to the slot and slugging in a one-timer off Buie’s upward feed.

“We took the victory today,” Deraney concluded. “They didn’t hand it to us, we took it from them and I was very excited about that. We have people who are willing to make the tough play, sacrifice their body even though they know there might be some harm taking it to the front of the net, and that ended up scoring the fourth goal. It was a wonderful play by Buie taking it to the paint and Veharanta putting it top shelf from in tight. That doesn’t happen if Buie doesn’t take it to the front of the cage.

“A lot times we’ve been going behind the net. Now I’m seeing people take it to the front of the cage for a change. And we got rewarded for that.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Hockey Log

Friedman charges power surge

For only the second time since Halloween weekend, the PC women’s power play converted twice in a single game yesterday. Were it not for an extra five seconds last Sunday against Union, it would have been the third occasion and point-based puckslinger Jen Friedman would have had an integral role both times.

In last week’s 2-1 triumph, Friedman slugged home an insurance -strike-turned-decider with 12:21 to spare in the third period just as an opposing Marissa Gentile was coming back into the equation at the conclusion of her tripping minor. It was simply one of those old keep-the-swarm-going conversions.

Yesterday, from the same straightaway position, Friedman nailed a true 5-on-4 tally, granting the Friars a 3-2 lead with 16:30 remaining en route to a 4-2 victory over New Hampshire. It went down as her second consecutive game-clincher, her third goal in as many games, and her fifth power play point on the year, tying her for second on the team with Alyse Ruff and Nicole Anderson, all with 2-3-5 transcripts apiece.

“Jennifer Friedman, she and (fellow point patroller Ashley) Cottrell are really getting some chemistry back there and it’s really nice to see,” said head coach Bob Deraney. “I think we’re growing and that bodes really well for the future. Also, we’ve moved around a little personnel based on how people are developing, so I think we have a pretty good combination.”

Over the course of seven opportunities yesterday, the Providence power play brigade took nine registered stabs at New Hampshire goalie Kayley Herman. A leading three of those were off Friedman’s twig, which ties her with Corinne Buie for second on the team with 17 power play shots this season.

In all, Friedman has landed 35 SOG, eight of them coming just within her last two games and 15 coming in her last five. And after she had established herself as a long-distance playmaker to start her junior year with 10 helpers in her first 12 games, she is now pleasing her coach with suddenly broader horizons and more firsthand contributions in the attacking zone.

“She’s always been able to shoot it, we’ve always encouraged her to shoot it,” said Deraney. “Not only is she shooting it, but she’s shooting it intelligently, with some accuracy, and when you have that type of talent, the fact that she’s using it really excites me. She may not score every time from the point, but boy is she going to give our forwards a lot of wonderful opportunities to get some goals around the net.”

Fresh sheet for UConn matchup
This afternoon, PC alumna Heather Linstad’s pupils from Connecticut will make their first business trip to Schneider Arena since they dislodged the Friars from the 2010 Hockey East semifinals.

As is his custom, Deraney repelled any suggestion of icing a vengeance-minded pack in the rematch.

“We’re chasing something bigger than winning a hockey game,” he said. “We’re chasing a style of play, something that will be indicative of the type of team we are. The past has nothing to do with it. This is a different team with a different mentality and different ability.”

Still, the likes of Friedman admit that there is still some residual sting from last spring’s Husky-inflicted dog bite, regardless of how it factors in to the team’s 2010-11 endeavor.

“This is a new season, but yeah, we always remember what happened last season,” she said. “So we would like to get revenge. Looking back to last year, we always want to build off each season, but it’s a new team, new season, so we’re just going to go from where we are.”

Not unlike yesterday’s visitors from New Hampshire, the Huskies are on a startling slide. Yesterday’s 4-0 loss to Boston University docked them to 6-9-1 overall.

Charitable recognition

A pregame ceremony yesterday had the Friars’ coaches and captains presenting a $540 check to the Sojourner House in Providence, all compliments of the domestic violence awareness fundraiser that took place around the Oct. 23 game versus Princeton.

Quick Feeds: Ruff was credited with an assist on Laura Veharanta’s insurance strike, giving her a team-leading 13 helpers on the year and one in each of her last three games…Yesterday’s game was the 125th of Ruff’s college career. Defender Amber Yung will achieve the same milestone today…Sophomore Kristina Lavoie, one of the few sizzling specimens at New Hampshire, led her team with five shots on goal…The Friars and Wildcats split in the face-off department, winning 33 draws apiece…Goaltender Genevieve Lacasse notched her fourth assist of the season, setting up the rush that amounted to Kate Bacon’s second period equalizer. The Scarborough Save-ior now has seven helpers to her credit in 82 career games…Bacon grabbed a goal-assist value pack and drew four out of seven New Hampshire penalties, including each of the first three…Buie took the quick Crash Davis resort when asked about her playmaker hat trick. “My teammates did a really good job of finishing everything off,” she said.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com