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Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Hockey

They jumped their captain’s ship
O’Neill’s flares of valiance wasted in loss


Her first jutting highlight of the game, a slick backdoor power play goal serendipitously captured by the cameras of Cox Sports, should have been the sparkplug to an assertive triumph.

Her second big play, an opposing penalty drawn immediately after visiting New Hampshire had knotted the score, could have been the PC women’s signal that the plebeian Wildcats would be getting diddlysquat in charity offerings from them.

Similarly, her third notable play, a close shave that saw the puck skitter just to the goal line late in the second period with the game still tied, might have been the Friars’ new wave of inspiration. Even if it didn’t go in, it could have made for all the more motivation to bury the next one.

Finally, with her team nursing a 2-1 deficit in the waning seconds of last night’s bout at Schneider Arena, co-captain Jean O’Neill was perched along the near post amidst the last ditch six-pack attack, raring to slug in a dramatic equalizer. But the hockey gods reminded her that this is the epitome of team sports and kept her twig from buttering that biscuit.

And so, O’Neill’s belated regular season debut on home ice for her senior campaign was spoiled. A shortage of collective effort amongst her fellow 18 skaters was the blatant culprit as the Friars allowed the floundering Wildcats to halt their nine-game Hockey East losing streak and hand PC its third loss in four games.

“Not scoring goals,” said head coach Bob Deraney. “It’s a simple as that. We had plenty of chances to puck behind (New Hampshire goalie Lindsey Minton). It went everywhere but in the net. Whenever you play with that small a margin of error and can’t create separation, you’re just asking for something fluky to happen.

“Both goals they scored were direct turnovers by us. You can’t win when you don’t take care of the puck.”

In the five games since O’Neill’s return from a three-month injury/rehab regimen, the Providence strike force has mustered 10 goals for a nightly median of two. O’Neill has had a hand in four of those goals, scoring three and assisting on another. And it’s worth noting that her two linemates, Abby Gauthier and Alyse Ruff, accounted for both strikes in Friday’s 2-0 win at the Whittemore Center.

The Friars have converted only thrice on the power play since New Year’s. Those last two conversions, including last night, were polished off by O’Neill, who has four points and nine shots on the numerical advantage in only seven total appearances.

And in Friday’s win up in Durham, PC started slow with only one shot on goal to speak of through the first 20 minutes. Guess who discharged that lonely SOG?

“Not that her other teammates aren’t (showing the same desire),” said Deraney. “I think the key thing is she’s a very good player and she’s not even close to being 100 percent yet. She definitely gives us a shot in the arm and we sure are glad to have her back. She’s playing well for us.”

The old “lead by example” adage speaks for itself here. True enough, a degree of healthily spread effort showed up on last night’s scoresheet -14 different Skating Friars took at least one SOG, led by Kate Bacon’s five and four apiece by blueliner Rebecca Morse and the fettered forward Jessie Vella. But the standard O’Neill has set reaches far beyond her registered attempts or her icebreaker at 9:36 of the first period.

New Hampshire’s Sarah Campbell drew a 1-1 knot only six minutes and 40 seconds after O’Neill had drawn first blood. But one face-off and 22 ticks thereafter, Courtney Birchard –practically the lone star in a mighty-have-fallen program- was going to the sin bin as penance for hooking O’Neill in her unhesitant drive to Minton’s cage.

Yep, rather than let her head droop over the unfortunate equalizer, O’Neill had chosen to try her luck at repealing the Wildcats’ momentum before it even took effect. She drove to the net looking to renew the lead, but instead drew a bonus spin on the wheel of fortune.

The Friars proceeded to take two fruitless power play shots. Ditto their third of five total opportunities on the night. Over the two chances thereafter, they managed but one more hack.

“Considering our power play, I’ll take 1-for-5. That’s 20 percent,” said Deraney. “When you score on the power play, you should win. We hurt ourselves tonight.”

In a similar vein, when one of a team’s top seasoned leaders contributes, she would expect to see a little more compensation in the standings. But so far, in each of the three games where O’Neill has tuned the opposing mesh this season, PC has fallen short.

Captain’s curse? Only in the sense that O’Neill is the one feeling plagued, along with the rest of her team, by the pesky benchwide bug of complacency and its consequences.

“We’re just trying to get better and we didn’t get better tonight,” Deraney concluded.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com