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Saturday, January 22, 2011

On Hockey

Preparation powered the PK
PC women weather third period blizzard for win


Around the halfway mark of the third period last night, goaltender Genevieve Lacasse watched with little surprise and controlled angst as the population of the Friars’ compact penalty box grew to a near overflow.

“I kind of felt the penalties were going to come because we hadn’t taken any yet,” she said. “We were ready for them.”

That they were. With Jess Cohen flagged for hooking at 9:05, Jessie Vella whistled for hitting from behind at 9:50, and Amber Yung cited for holding at 10:54, the Friars were ultimately forced to play shorthanded for a succession of three minutes and 49 seconds. It was a 5-on-3 deficit for each of those first two minutes and 29 seconds.

And all while they were safeguarding a precious 2-1 lead against the formidable Boston College Eagles.

But upon Yung’s jailbreak with 7:06 to spare, the difference on the scoreboard was the same –and it eventually morphed into a 3-1 victory for Providence. Lacasse repelled all 11 power play shots during the protracted PK segment and all 33 (no typo) stabs thrust at her in the closing 20-minute stanza, swelling her league-best save percentage to .944.

BC would continue to control the shooting gallery, 10-2, in the final 7:06 of action. But already, by virtue of revoking their guests’ written invitation to turn the tide, the Friars were as good as the victors.

“That’s the ballgame,” PC head coach Bob Deraney said of the Triple Crown kill. “Whoever emerges there, either with a bigger deficit or a closer deficit, if Boston College had tied the score at that point, they would have had a lot of momentum, and it’s a lot tougher.”

Deraney admitted to anticipating some sort of whistling gale coming in the direction of his bench. After all, the Friars had been blessed with each of the game’s first five power plays within the first two periods. Whenever bestowed with such fortune, any seasoned participant in the game of hockey is bound to wait for the other skate to drop.

“It’s inevitable,” the skipper said. “I think the referees called the penalties that were out there. They did their job and we just had to be aware of it and we were able to overcome it.

“At the end of the day, I’ve never seen a game where the (penalty calls) were lopsided one-to-one, so you’ve got to make sure to play extra clean and we didn’t. We took penalties that we shouldn’t have taken but we were able to weather the storm.”

As it happened, the four unanswered penalties in the third period –beginning with Yung’s tripping infraction just 46 seconds in, and only 21 ticks after Rebecca Morse slugged home the eventual game-clinching goal- arrived for the same reason that PC was physically and psychologically braced for them.

The Eagles committed the only infraction in the opening frame and in the second, they were penalized four times within precisely nine-and-a-half minutes. Thus, beginning at the 6:35 mark and ending when PC’s Abby Gauthier tipped in a power play strike at 18:02, or in a total span of 11:27, they were shorthanded for seven minutes and 57 seconds.

“In the first two periods we were on the penalty kill a lot and that takes a lot out of your team,” said BC head coach Katie King. “I think when you’re best players have to kill penalties, then it makes it tough.

“But (in the third) we had opportunities on that power play and we just didn’t score. Lacasse played great, she made the saves she needed to make, and we couldn’t put any of those rebounds in. I think they kept us away.”

Surprise, surprise, the otherworldly Kelli Stack –who scored shorthanded at 12:24 of the middle frame- was the nucleus of the Eagles’ power play brigade, taking five of their 11 SOG. At 10:00, she won a face-off against Ashley Cottrell and took two successive hacks at Lacasse. A subsequent frenzy in the dirty-nose area culminated in Yung going to the bin with still 12 ticks left on Cohen’s sentence and 57 on Vella’s.

King utilized her timeout at that point and one draw later, Stack reached deftly around Alyse Ruff to usurp control of the puck and BC pelted Lacasse five times in nine seconds, the last two shots both coming from Stack.

The Friars stalled the Eagles for the rest of the 5-on-3 and Vella, 15 seconds removed from the bin, assertively cleared the zone up the near wall with 7:55 left in the game. BC regrouped and mustered one more 5-on-4 rush, but it ended with Lacasse booting Stack’s long-distance low-rider of a shot right when Yung’s penalty expired.

“I was really disheartened that it came down to that, that we had to kill 5-on-3 penalties,” said Deraney. “But I don’t have any fault on our kids at all. I thought they did a terrific job. No matter what comes our way, we’ve got to deal with adversity and persevere, and that’s what we did.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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

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