Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2008-09 Providence College Women's Hockey Season In Review

It clearly didn’t surface on their final transcript or their final faces in the aftermath of Saturday’s Hockey East semifinal loss, but the Friars flickered with sincere makings of an improved program in 2008-09. The fundamental covers of this run mirrored those of the previous three shortcomings, but at least some of the pages were genuinely different.

That being said, here is why their refurbishment was not rewarded with, at a bare minimum, a dramatic spike in win percentage and a more conspicuous presence in the national leaderboard: they spent the thick of the season playing catch-up, much the same way they did in their season-ending 3-1 falter to New Hampshire after surrendering an initial 2-0 deficit in the first period.

Delete their iffy 2-5-0 start to the season from their final log of 17-16-3 for a moment. Their overall win percentage instantly leaps from to .514 to .569.

That on its own probably would not have fortified a fail-safe at-large mattress for them. But consider the overall competitiveness of their October slate: no losses by more than two goals and all five by a single sliver if you discount empty netters.

Size that up with the similarly superficial slow starts of every season in recent memory and it is made plain that head coach Bob Deraney made the right tweak by hustling his pupils straight to tests only four nights after the annual Canadian exhibition quiz. There were no ties against the plebeian Maine Black Bears, unspeakable blowouts via St. Lawrence, or shutouts dealt by Connecticut.

Still, the Friars had a lavish, four-game homestand to kickstart this season –a written invitation to get off to a booming start. And if they had had the immediate means of nailing that extra bounce needed to bump Ohio State and St. Lawrence those first three nights, it would have propped up their poll viability and entitled them to long-lasting confidence.

In a matter of that nature, one thing can lead to another. Perhaps then, they would have averted those 2-1 OT road falters at Yale (December 30) or UConn (February 1). Perhaps they would have won their season series with the burgeoning Northeastern program. Perhaps they would, contrary to the actual upshot, have skated with their noses tilted upward and their skates scarcely touching the ice en route to a win over the Wildcats on February 13, instead of an embittering 3-2 drop that prompted Deraney to snort “We don’t have the right to be confident.”

No question, they would have had that right if their record consistently reflected their ingredients. Hand-in-hand with that, they just might be spending this week fostering for a regional voyage rather than slogging through a few final cool-down skates and/or parting ways for an unwanted spring break.

How do we know that? As hinted above, defense and goaltending was this team’s most stable position from the very first face-off, authorizing a slim 77 opposing goals in 36 total outings (a nightly median of 2.14). And on only five occasions did they admit four or more “legitimate” goals –thrice against ranked adversaries (UNH, Boston College, Dartmouth) who are now bound for the Elite Eight.

But that, right there, is still another jutting problem. The Friars were an agonizing 2-9-2 versus Top 10 teams –a minor dip even from their 3-7-1 showing in 2007-08. Apart from 5-0 and 5-1 lashings of UNH and UConn, respectively, in January, they were 0-9-2 in that scenario, never tuning their opponent’s mesh more than three times per night.

Perhaps they would have with just a little less of that empty calorie confidence and more pregame seasoning. Recall the conclusion of the Ohio State sweep, when Deraney noted how the contesting parties had whet their respective blades the preceding weekend.

“They played a college team (Wilfrid Laurier),” he noted at the time. “We played a midget team (the Brampton Junior Thunder), so we took a while to get acclimated to what the pace is really like.”

It would be anything but a shock if Deraney is currently hearkening back to that very statement himself and, if he can help it, will make a point of enlisting a Canadian university to instill next year’s requisite “growing pains” to the Friars. Better to learn hardcore, bittersweet lessons when the final score counts for less, is it not?

And look at the subsequent paths PC and OSU proceeded to draw: the Friars finished fourth in their league and within reasonable tasting distance of an automatic bid. The Buckeyes spilled gallons of promise, rolling up a final record of 8-25-3 and were hastily exiled by Wisconsin (collective two-game score of 11-1) in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Neither club was anywhere close to emitting its true colors that first weekend of October. The Friars’ gratifying youth movement had yet to mature.

Ultimately, though, this year’s freshman class accounted for 41.8% of the team’s 86 goals, 38.7% of their 217 points, 80.7% of their 937 saves, and 15 of their 17 wins. The less populous sophomore stock pitched in another 15 of those goals and 34 of those points, a roughly duplicate follow-up on their own rookie reign.

By all those accounts, a simple upgrade in preseason competition really would have made ripples worth of difference. PC would have been able to boast a 1-0-0 record for the first time in this collegiate generation and their first 2-0-0 start since they battled under the ECAC heading.

Once he was removed from that half-full first month, Deraney consistently voiced a mission statement to “peak” in the climax of the season. Hey, it wasn’t as if he could reach back in time and correct those nicks to the neck, so why worry?

But as he had also promised as early as the spring of 2007, when the soon-to-be-juniors submitted their NLIs, he is accumulating the means of a team that has no cause not to be formidable from start to finish. Proficient puckslingers and playmakers Laura Veharanta, Ashley Cottrell, Alyse Ruff, Kate Bacon, and Jean O’Neill, backliners Amber Yung, Leigh Riley, Jennifer Friedman, and Christie Jensen, and newly bestowed ITECH Goaltending Champion Genevieve Lacasse are all raring to come back that much more mature. Some might even qualify to wear an “A” over their heart (the “C” is too much of a stretch with four rising seniors in the equation) the next time they strap on formal game time attire.

There were nights in this year’s stretch drive and playoffs where the Friars learned the value of setting the pace and claiming the momentum early. Sometimes they tutored the opposition on that very topic (e.g. 3-0 quarterfinal win over Connecticut). But most recently, they were on the schooled side at the hands of their northern nemesis.

It’s a concept straightforward enough for individual games. And it can be equally applicable to a full season. That ought to be their wager for 2009-10.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Tis article originally appeared in the Friartown Free Press