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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hockey Log

Preserving their purpose
Friars vie to enter postseason on a wave


A Thursday evening press release from the league holds that the PC women will host their Hockey East quarterfinal game a week from today at 2 p.m.

As of this morning, still no other pertinent details have cleared in the playoff picture. With three bottom feeders still eligible to claim sixth place and the two packs of Huskies from Connecticut and Northeastern engaged in a home-and-home series that will determine the other wild card site, the Friars do not yet know whom they will face next weekend.

But with a win today or tomorrow over the dogged-but-drowning Vermont Catamounts (1 p.m. face-off at Schneider Arena), they can instantaneously slim that pool down from five potentialities to two. One more loss will automatically send the Catamounts to another February spring cleaning while one more win will cement third place for Providence. That would mean dodging a date with UConn or NU and waiting on who wins the footrace between New Hampshire and Maine –currently sixth and seventh, respectively, and pried apart by a single point.

Whoever the eventual sixth-seeder is, it ought to be a comparatively shallow and drained adversary as opposed to either of the Huskies, who likely both have a little more bite in them than any Cats or Bears. Some draws are clearly preferable above others, then, right?

“Personally, no, because we should be able to beat all of the opponents that we face,” said Friars’ junior defender Jen Friedman.

“But (finishing third) should give us a bit of an advantage in terms of who we play down the line.”

Regardless, having rinsed out the vinegar of a season-worst three-game slide with last weekend’s sweep of UConn, which pole-vaulted them to the No. 3 slot to begin with, the Friars are honing a fastidious craving for momentum. They are riding their first non-carry-over win streak since New Year’s –before which they had charged up two five-game thrill rides- and there’s no time like the present to replenish that spilled contender’s persona than the last phases of the playoff tune-up.

“We definitely want to finish as high as we possibly can,” said top gun Kate Bacon. “I know we should be in third place. We deserve to be. And I think it would give us more momentum throughout the playoffs the higher we are. If we’re able to get third ahead of fourth, we want to do that, and I know we can.”

The last-minute tweaks on the conference tournament bracket are to say nothing of PC’s national posture. Considering their once-radiant transcript was pillaged by Generals January and February (14-5-1 at the break to 17-11-1 on Super Bowl Sunday) like a 19th century Scandinavian army, it is somewhat remarkable the Friars are now No. 10 in the prophetic PairWise rankings.

Any ascension to the coveted top eight, which would all but signify qualification for an at-large NCAA bid, is a negligible proposition. The strength of schedule between now and March 5 is too feathery for any string of wins to woo anyone. But by the same token, for the at-large bid to remain an option at all, there can be no missteps between now and the Hockey East semifinals.

That means productively savoring these last three extramural skates at Schneider Arena and certainly not conceding anything more to the plebeian Catamounts. PC already relearned that old lesson in a 1-0 falter at Gutterson Fieldhouse on Jan. 30, one of the more jutting bumps in the second half of their path.

“I know it’s going to be a tough game,” said Friedman. “Vermont is a team on the rise. They always put up a good fight in their game.

“But I know our team is really looking forward to the game and I think everybody is going to step up and play well, especially (considering) the last game we played against them when we fell short. That’ll give us a lot of motivation.”

Quick feeds: Vermont junior defender Kailey Nash, a Middletown native raring to play in her fourth and fifth college game in her native state, ranks second among Hockey Easterners with 57 penalty minutes. Maine’s Ashley Norum is tops in that category with 64 PIM. Nash is also last among all 16 skating Catamounts with a minus-14 rating on the year…Sophomore forward Erin Wente, the team’s leading goal-getter with eight strikes, is the only Catamount not in the plus/minus red. She bears an even rating…The Friars and Catamounts are both nursing protracted power play droughts spanning their last two-plus games. PC has deferred on each of its last nine 5-on-4 chances, UVM its last 12…Even if it whiffs on the postseason again, Vermont has already secured its most productive Hockey East campaign –collecting 12 points- since joining the league in 2005-06.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hockey Log

PC women looking fully forward
With sweep comes replenished optimism


Upon answering a phone interview yesterday afternoon while his pupils indulged in their first hard-earned Monday off in recent memory, Friars head coach Bob Deraney might as well have been reciting or pitching upbeat song lyrics.

The title/chorus/refrain: “…a sign of things to come.”

Indeed, a copious array of elements that defined the first half of PC’s 2010-11 enterprise simultaneously resurfaced over the weekend, particularly in Sunday’s 4-3 triumph over Connecticut at Rentschler Field.

After mustering no more than three goals per night throughout their iffy, nine-game January, the Friars concocted their best offensive outburst since thrashing these same Huskies, 5-1, Dec. 5. And the eight individual point-getters on Sunday’s scoresheet were the most they had since that same pre-Christmas feast at Schneider Arena.

With a playmaker hat trick, top gun Kate Bacon logged her first multi-point performance in 13 ventures and her fifth on the year. With a 1-2-3 log on the weekend, co-captain Jean O’Neill contributed in consecutive games for the first time in her fall-and-rise campaign. Explosive blueliner Jen Friedman has a season-best three-game point streak in the works while stay-at-home rookie defender Maggie Pendleton earned her second career helper Sunday.

Translation: the depth is beginning to flow back in at a comfortable, continuous rate.

“We’ve been working extremely hard on that and I think it’s a sign of things to come,” Deraney said.

The replenished strike force, most naturally, helped the Friars sculpt a better insurance policy than they have afforded themselves in the last month. Sunday was the first time since a 2-0 road win in New Hampshire Jan. 14 that they scored the game’s first two goals, triumphed after drawing first blood, and never trailed at any point. In the seven contests in between, they had won thrice by surmounting an initial 1-0 deficit, spilled a pair of 1-0 leads, and whiffed on two comeback efforts.

“It’s a sign of us getting healthy and creating some continuity in our lineup,” mused Deraney. “It’s just another sign of things to come. I don’t just think that, I know that.”

Having relocated that long-elusive, yet critical combination of an ambitious start and an assertive finish, Providence claimed consecutive victories for the first time in three weeks. It triumphed on back-to-back days for the first time since its first and only active weekend in December.

And it polished off a three-game season series sweep of UConn. That doubtlessly neutralized the residual vinegar from Jan. 3 and Jan. 15, when the Friars deferred their chance to similarly rake away all six points from Maine and UNH.

“It’s another sign of the growth for this team,” Deraney concluded.

Vermont a fitting foe
Already assured home ice for next weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinal, the only tangible gain for the Friars to claim in the immediate future is third place. They will only need one win in this weekend’s two-day visit from Vermont, which still lingers in the race for the final playoff spot but will be zapped from contention with another loss or UNH victory.

When enlightened to those contesting implications, Deraney responded with a genuine jolt of oomph in his voice.

“Great. That’s exactly what we want,” he said. “We want a team that has something on the line.

“You couldn’t ask for a better opponent. The most dangerous people are the most desperate people.”

Another laurel for Lacasse
One more first-time-in-some-time for the Friars: goaltender Genevieve Lacasse garnered her fourth Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week award, but her first since the December deceleration.

Lacasse, who stopped a cumulative 50 UConn shots over the weekend, is now 108 saves away from surmounting Jana Bugden for PC’s all-time lead. With as many as three guaranteed games left in the season, she will likely need to nudge the Friars into the Hockey East semifinals, if not the title game, to break the record before her junior campaign is up.

Quick Feeds: Sunday was the Friars’ first winning effort when giving up three goals…In back-to-back years, PC has swept its regular season series with the team that had ended its previous playoff run. The Friars took all six points from New Hampshire in 2009-10 after the Wildcats dislodged them from the 2009 postseason bracket…The forthcoming Catamounts are 2-1-0 since nipping the Friars at Gutterson Fieldhouse, 1-0, Jan. 30. All but one of their last 13 Hockey East games have been decided by two goals or fewer and rookie goaltender Roxanne Douville has let no more than two opposing shots slip by in any of her last five starts.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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

Hockey Log

Sudden death to Vella’s spell

On the final shift of the third period yesterday, Jessie Vella nearly sent a message straight to Old Man Overtime’s smartphone telling him he would not be required to visit Schneider Arena.

When she failed to deliver that, speedily churning the puck around the Connecticut cage and into the slot, only to watch her assertive backhander leap over the crossbar, her coach let her know she had whiffed on a particularly radiant opportunity.

“I kind of gave her evil eye and she kind of gave me the evil eye back,” said PC women’s skipper Bob Deraney.

No surprise there. The Pickering, Ont. product had just seen her goal-less streak extended to 22 consecutive 60-minute battles, dating back to Oct. 23. She was still without a non-empty netter since Oct. 9, two days before her home country’s Thanksgiving, equaling a hex of 27 regulation games.

But in the subsequent sudden-death stanza, long-awaited gratitude was right around the corner –specifically, the far corner of the Huskies’ zone- for Vella. Friars’ defender Amber Yung slugged the puck from the near point behind the net, where winger Jean O’Neill retrieved it and found Vella waiting on the porch.

A simple one-time snapper on O’Neill’s pass beat UConn goaltender Nicole Paniccia, ended the game, ended Vella’s drought, and wrapped up PC’s bid for a Hockey East playoff spot.

“I’m just really excited,” Vella said. “I’ve been working really hard and the whole goal of this weekend was to drive to the net, get there, work really hard, and sacrifice your body. I drove the net, Jean made a nice pass and we were rewarded for it, finally.”

Vella’s walk-off strike was her third shot on goal of the day, her fifth overall attempt, and her 24th SOG in her last seven games, nearly doubling her bushel of 25 from the season’s first 23 dates. Apart from that, save for an assist on Jan. 2, her contributions since New Year’s had been strictly intangible. But those included consistent stinginess on the penalty kill and using her turbine blades to draw regular opposing infractions a la top gun Kate Bacon.

“She put herself in a good position to score goals and just didn’t get rewarded for it,” said Deraney. “And that’s probably the least skilled play she made today, is the one she scored on. But if you keep going to the hard areas, you’re going to get rewarded, one way or another.

“Whether it’s fancy or whether it’s ugly, it doesn’t matter. It was nice to see her hard work get paid off. She had been putting a lot of pressure on herself because she’s a winner, she’s a competitor, and she wants to contribute to the success of this team as much as anybody.”

That desire had not been enough of late, until after Vella got that disgruntled glare on the bench.

Did it help?

“Definitely,” she said. “Coach is always there to inspire you and he definitely did inspire me in his own way, and it’s just nice to finally contribute to the team the way I know that I can.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com