Monday, March 5, 2012

Commentary: Even With Losing Record, Deraney, Lacasse Still Bona Fide Winners

The pill escalates in vinegary bitterness by the year for the Providence College women’s hockey team, both in the sense of its concoction and delivery and in the way of its implications.

The prized, celestial senior class of 2012 brooked more than a mere shortcoming in its lone Hockey East championship game Sunday afternoon. They blinked in double overtime after coming to within 7.7 seconds of a 1-0 triumph in regulation, which would have granted record-razing goaltender Genevieve Lacasse three shutouts in as many conference tournament games.

Instead, a once-wounded and since-recovered giant from Boston University perked up and netted the equalizer, then claimed its second pennant in three years via Jenn Wakefield. Yes, the Jenn Wakefield, who transferred to the Terriers during her year off from college in 2009-10, two seasons after her Granite State Goddesses from New Hampshire beat a whole other collection of Friars in the program’s previous WHEA title tilt in 2008.

Wakefield’s strike instantaneously forced Lacasse and six skating mates to make their tracks on the Divine Campus with no merry March memories, other than Saturday’s 2-0 semifinal win over Northeastern, which terminated fellow goaltending phenom Florence Schelling’s hopes for a single conference title or NCAA tournament passport.

Just as strikingly, if not more so, Sunday’s loss force-fed head coach Bob Deraney his first sub-.500 record in his 13 years behind the Friars’ bench. A win would have assured at least a neutral winning percentage regardless of the outcome of the NCAA quarterfinals, but it was not to be. A tempestuous first half to the 2011-12 season came back to leave a permanent scar in the form of a final transcript of 16-17-4.

But that need not percolate too much discussion. One barely losing season on top of 12 straight runs of .500 or better does not reflect Deraney’s aptitude any more than a 2-1, 48-save, double-overtime loss on top of 219:21 straight minutes of shutout hockey reflects Lacasse’s value.

This author spent the better part of this season figuring that Lacasse, who frankly is now PC’s Granato of goaltenders, needed a Hockey East crown to certify her big-game value and salvage her shot at a future spot on Team Canada.

That was before the postseason, before she outclassed her former U19 teammate Brittany Ott and then outdueled her career-long rival Schelling in a 2-0 upset of top-dog Northeastern.

Did she wind up 0-2 all-time in playoff overtime bouts and concede a one-goal lead to let that bonus round happen in the first place on both occasions? Yes, but it took three-time Hockey East MVP Kelli Stack 11 tries to beat her and give Boston College the win at 11:57 of the sudden-death session in last year’s semifinals.

This past weekend, only Wakefield, who fell just short of a Canadian Olympic roster spot in 2010 and sandwiched that adventure with 119 college goals and 203 college assists and counting, could solve Lacasse. Wakefield now has five multi-goal performances out of 12 college playoff games in her career, including one against Schelling’s Huskies last year.

The day prior, Northeastern mustered diddlysquat, even after spending 12:36, or a little more than one-fifths of the game on the power play and landing 17 shots on goal with at least one extra skater.

The week prior, an exponentially escalating Maine Black Bears team was all but biffed back into their Dan Lichterman days when second-year coach Maria Lewis took them to the wild card round at Schneider Arena. Deraney’s pupils patiently garnered and deposited chance after chance to charge up an incentive-fueled, 6-0 victory, the most lopsided decision in a Hockey East playoff tilt in four years.

With that, for the 10th time in 10 tries, the Friars were among both the top four in the league standings at the end of the regular season and the final four in the conference postseason.

Between a Jan. 22 overtime loss in a visit to Maine and their next sudden-death slip in Sunday’s championship game, Providence went on a 7-1-1 roll, improving a 9-15-3 record to 16-16-4. Along the way, they extracted a 6-4-10 scoring log from senior Ashley Cottrell, who had missed six games during a trying month of October due to injury.

In Cottrell’s absence, the Friars went 1-4-1, enduring three shutout losses and effectively forfeiting their shot at an at-large NCAA tournament bid before Halloween. That stretch overlapped with junior striker Nicole Anderson’s own ailment, which forced her to miss the first 10 games, two wins, six losses and two ties.

Another senior, defender Christie Jensen, sat out seven games in November and December, watching her team go 3-4-0 in the process.

Excuses? No. Explanations.

Deraney has dealt with this before, perhaps most notably in 2009-10, when a 4-7-6 record at the halfway mark eventually morphed into a 15-11-9 finish and a Hockey East regular-season title.

And as soon-to-be-triumphant BU coach Brian Durocher, Deraney’s one-time goaltender instructor in the Terrier men’s program, said Saturday “Deraney has done an unbelievable job of being here every single year. That’s a program that, with the evolution of women’s hockey could have maybe changed the landscape, maybe slid a little bit from the pedestal they were in for a long, long time.

“But they’re here every single year, banging the door, playing for championship games and that’s a great credit to him, his staff and certainly the young ladies who play on his team.”

You see? There are reasons why, literally, for every coaching change PC athletic director Bob Driscoll makes in his flagship basketball program, there is a contract extension for Deraney.

In another 12 months, Deraney will have matched John Marchetti for the longest reign behind the PC women’s bench. At some point in 2013-14, he will eclipse Marchetti’s program-record mark of 262 wins.

None of the three Hub clubs at BC, BU or Northeastern plan on going anywhere and Maine is relevant to stay. And Deraney will part with his class of 2012 with a shortage of fulfillment, but also with a rebuilding project comparable to what he confronted circa 2005-2008.

But do not, I repeat, do not bet against the Friars continuing to make the bigwigs sweat in February and early March.