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Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Hockey

They’re digging out, but must dig in deeper
Leadership, transition game re-emerging for PC women


Jean O’Neill is not walking through that door. Alyse Ruff is not walking through that door.

Wait a minute, yes they are. Perhaps you were just missing them in recent weeks, and it probably had little, if anything, to do with those new, gloomy-looking third jerseys their team has now sported thrice in the last seven games.

The PC women’s co-captains simply were not producing like themselves, which made them personify the nadir of the Friars’ 2010-11 season.

Entering yesterday’s action, O’Neill had not penned her name to any of the last five scoresheets while Ruff was nursing a six-game scoring drought, tied for a career worst. During that stretch, Providence had lost four out of six games, including of the last three, and scored a cumulative nine goals.

Fittingly, both the individuals and the team in question broke their hexes yesterday in a 2-1 overtime win over Connecticut that also cemented a postseason passport. While still far from a cure-all for the Friars’ frostbitten offense, yesterday’s developments mark a timely U-turn back in the right direction.

“Those are all really good things,” said head coach Bob Deraney. “But that’s not what we’re focusing on right now. We’re focusing on trying to play a better brand of hockey.”

Trailing, 1-0, for a full dozen minutes in the opening frame, the Friars looked a tad panicky as they sought an equalizer and tried to dodge the insidious notion of dipping to a four-game losing streak. And after failing to make the visiting Huskies pay for back-to-back icing infractions at the 19:23 and 19:32 mark, it appeared they would have to keep fidgeting through the first intermission.

But when freshman blueliner Rebecca Morse retrieved the remnants and yet a third UConn clear and shipped it up ice to Ruff, two profiles in persistence broke out. Ruff bolted along the near wall back onto enemy property and hit Jen Friedman with a diagonal feed to the left point.

Stationed on the UConn porch, O’Neill waited for Friedman to let loose and, with 1.2 seconds left, deflected the defender’s slapper home.

“That’s a great play all around,” said Deraney. “Things we work on in practice about finding the second wave, trying to one-touch it, things that we weren’t doing very well lately. It was nice to see us get rewarded for the effort we’ve put in practice on that.”

The goal, O’Neill’s seventh of an injury-chopped senior season, granted Ruff a team-leading 16th assist and doubtlessly pumped some invaluable momentum into PC’s tanks.

By day’s end, O’Neill had set up Jessie Vella’s walk-off goal and she skated off sharing the day’s best plus-2 rating with her co-captain, former Princeton Tiger Lilies teammate, and off-and-on linemate.

Over their first three seasons as Friars, O’Neill and Ruff shared a hand in 18 scoring plays, or 40 percent of O’Neill’s first 45 career points and 27 percent of Ruff’s first 66. The bulk of those collaborations were from the PRO Line days with Mari Pehkonen in 2007-08 and last season when Jess Cohen supplemented the starting trio.

Since O’Neill’s post-holiday return, the captains have been separated on the depth chart, but Ruff has assisted on two of O’Neill’s goals, the other coming on Jan. 9 at Boston University.

Simultaneously breaking their fetters yesterday might not compel Deraney to reconfigure the lines yet again, seeing as he just did that two weeks ago, but it does set a tone for a return to normalcy up and down the Friars’ roster.

“It’s always great playing with (Ruff) together on the power play,” said O’Neill. “She leads her line and we have other players stepping up on other lines, so it works out.”

It did yesterday, anyway. If Providence is to build upon this and verify its return to formidable status before the postseason, it will need more consistent tangible output from all classes and positions.

“I really think our captains have Cs and they do a good job, but I think we have a team of leaders,” said Deraney. “We expect leadership from everybody and we expect everybody to contribute to the success of the team. Obviously, the rest of the team takes that cue from our captains, and they do a wonderful job of leading by example.”

For their part, O’Neill, Ruff and their classmates can help the team’s cause by flaunting more of their unmatched seasoning. But for their own sake, they could stand to acknowledge the waning ice chips in their collegiate hourglass a little more.

The five seniors are the only active Friars to have suited up for a Hockey East championship game, which they lost, 1-0, to New Hampshire in March 2008. A return trip to the final frontier will only come if everyone –from the top of the hierarchy downward- relearns how to reward their reliable defense and finish more plays around the adversary’s net.

Assessing yesterday’s performance, Deraney said, “We attempted more shots (23) than they got on net (14) after the second period, so those are things we can correct right away.

“I thought defensively we played pretty well. Our honest effort on defense to get back and do the right things gives me a lot of optimism about going forward, because if you play good defense, good offense will come from that, and that’s what happened today.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com