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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Hockey

Keeping up with the Hub clubs

Three of the PC women’s next five games are against Boston College, which recently affirmed its nominal honor of being the No. 2 favorite in the Hockey East pennant race. Another will be the season series finale with Northeastern this Sunday, a tilt that could cement or sap either program’s hopes of a satisfactory third-place finish in the league and/or continuing relevance in the push for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

Right now, in the wake of three losses within their last four tries, the 15-8-1 Friars are the ones who need the most work on their national posture. Ranked No. 11, they sit two slots below the 13-6-4 Huskies in the PairWise projector.

Northeastern’s three most recent losses were to certified heavyweights –Boston University, Wisconsin, and BC. Conversely, Providence sandwiched a valiant 4-3 fall at BU with two skin-blistering shortcomings against the comparatively lowly Maine and New Hampshire, two teams that Dave Flint’s pupils happen to have topped within the last 10 days.

The good news: these next three weekends spell an opportunity for the Friars to replenish their pre-holiday persona at the most opportune time. Should they take at least half of the allotted six points from the Eagles –or, better yet, use extra home ice to win that wishbone- and muzzle the Huskies, with whom they split a pair prior Thanksgiving, their only concern thereafter will be not eating their cupcakes too fast. Connecticut, contrary to its deceptive spot in the Hockey East standings, has yet to prove itself against the best of the league. And Vermont, due for a two-night visit to Schneider Arena to close the regular season, is all but destined for another playoff no-go.

But between now and Friday night’s home bout with the Eagles, PC has at least three housekeeping tasks. Without redress in the following three areas, the otherwise logical notion of finishing comfortably in the top half of the league leaderboard with the three Bostonian bigwigs is in question.

First and foremost, the Friars need at least one more reliable trinity of forwards to go with their top six. In the same vein, they could stand to pull a little more production out of their blueliners. And like six other teams in the league, Providence will have to spruce up its special teams –especially if it wants a stiff shot at derailing the champion Terriers.

The top two lines –comprised of Kate Bacon, Corinne Buie, Ashley Cottrell, Abby Gauthier, Jean O’Neill, and Alyse Ruff- have shown little or no sign of New Year’s frostbite. Over the five games since their four-week respite, they have each produced at least two or three points. If anyone there has receded much, it’s Bacon, who had 14 goals at the break and still has 14.

Elsewhere, Nicole Anderson, Laura Veharanta, and senior defender Amber Yung have all been loitering around the double-digit threshold since Thanksgiving. Anderson and Veharanta still have nine points on the year, Yung eight.

(This is, by the way, to say nothing of the season-long struggles plaguing the rest of the depth chart. Other than Jessie Vella, who is working on a 2-4-6 transcript, the other six Skating Friars have four points or fewer. Even goaltender Genevieve Lacasse has four helpers to her credit.)

Save for a two-goal outing against Connecticut Dec. 5, Anderson is without any points in her last 16 games. Veharanta lit the lamp once versus New Hampshire Dec. 4, but is otherwise barren in the last 12 outings.

And in last Saturday’s loss to the Wildcats, Yung’s production drought reached 10 consecutive games, matching the worst skid of her career that stretched between December 3, 2007, and January 25, 2008, when she was a rookie. Meanwhile, towering junior Jen Friedman is one arid outing away from matching a season-high four-game pointless streak, this coming on the heels of a carry-over hot streak of six points in as many games.

A rapid U-turn for Friedman is especially critical to the power play and the experimental umbrella format. Six of Friedman’s 17 points have come during a 5-on-4 advantage, though she only has two power play points in the Friars’ last 11 ventures. Likewise, Anderson bolted out for five power play points in eight games by Oct. 23, but has stalled ever since. And Bacon still leads the PC brigade with seven points, though she has not added to her lead since Dec. 4.

As a group, the Friars have converted three of 27 opportunities since New Year’s, dropping their already subpar success rate a full point from 15.6 to 14.6 percent, fifth-best in the league and No. 19 in the country. And in their three most recent losing efforts, all decided by a single goal, they bought either the same number or more chances than the opposition, but wasted no fewer than three per night.

One more capitalization, one more productive shift from an overdue group of scorers, one more long-range delivery from the point. Any one of those could have spelled an extra Hockey East point any of those nights. A combination of two or three could have meant another much-yearned-for win and thus a greater presence in the upper echelon of the standings.

But if the Friars hurry, these essentials can still make the redemptive difference going forward.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com