BOSTON — Here’s a warning to anyone reading — don’t play poker against Providence coach Bob Deraney.
After his 7-0 blowout victory of Connecticut in a Hockey East women’s semifinal on Saturday, Deraney predicted a run-and-gun, high-scoring, defense-absent game against New Hampshire in Sunday’s title game.
“The score will probably be 7-5 or 6-4,” said Deraney.
What a bluff that turned out to be.
Deraney, of course, made the statement knowing that his club would play what has become a trademark for the Friars — a solid, three-person defensive front using only two forwards on the ice much of the time.
— PC coach Bob Deraney, on the Friars’ defense-first style.
The result was an absolutely stifling stand of defense for the Friars, allowing the UNH offense few quality chances en route to a 1-0 shutout victory to capture the inaugural Women’s Hockey East championship.
When asked about his defensive system, Deraney kept his poker face on.
“That’s the way we play,” said Deraney. “We’ve got tremendously skilled forwards and with our defense, we have kids jumping up in the play all the time.
“Our kids are hockey players, they’re not just kids who like to play hockey. They understand how the game’s played. So if we throw five people on the ice, they’re just playing hockey.”
But don’t let it fool you: having a system based on more defensemen than forwards should tip Deraney’s hand.
The system, according to Deraney, comes from his respect for the Middlebury men’s hockey program and coach Bill Beaney. As Deraney said, he “pirated” the system and implemented it at Providence.
The result has been two consecutive tournament championships — winning last year’s ECAC championship and this year’s Hockey East championship — by identical 1-0 scores.
The defensive shell of the Friars frustrates opponents, and on Sunday, UNH coach Brian McCloskey could be added to that list.
“Providence did a good job of not letting us get to the net,” said McCloskey, about the three-D front that PC plays. “That’s the system they play and we’re familiar with it. I thought we had chances, but we didn’t exploit [Providence's defense].”
Ironically, on the offensive side of the coin it is a Friar defenseman — Kelli Halcisak — who leads the league in scoring and who registered six assists on the weekend — including setting up Sunday’s game-winner — to capture the tournament MVP.
“When you have players like Kelly Halcisak playing defense, you have to let them jump into the play,” said Deraney, further explaining his strategic scheme.
Halcisak finishes the season with an active 11-game scoring streak.
Providence’s defensive dominance doesn’t stop with the three-deep blueliners. Rookie goaltender Jana Bugden, who despite posting back-to-back shutouts this weekend was edged out by UNH’s Jen Huggon on the all-tournament team, slowly has proven herself a solid relief when the tight Friar defense fails, posting a solid 21-5-5 record this season.
On Sunday, that continued as Bugden, despite only seeing 13 shots, was forced to stop UNH’s leading scorer Stephanie Jones twice on breakaways, the final time making a fantastic left-pad save to maintain PC’s 1-0 lead.
Bugden said she simply “tried to focus on the puck” — something that obviously worked this weekend as she posted her seventh and eighth shutouts of the season to lead PC to the title.
The championship is the eighth for PC’s women and the second for Deraney, the first seven and Deraney’s first, of course, coming in the ECAC.
Sadly for the Friars, the road most likely ends with the Hockey East title, as the women’s PairWise Rankings suggest that Providence will fall short on making the NCAAs despite posting an all-time Friar best 24 wins.
“We were optimistic that, if we won today, we’d get a chance,” said Deraney. “But with Dartmouth beating Harvard [for the ECAC championship] it doesn’t look good.
“I’m got giving up hope, though. I’d like to think that the tournament championship means a lot. But we’ll leave it in the committee’s hands. I just don’t think anyone really knew how good we were.”
Still, there’s plenty of consolation for Deraney and solace in taking home the championship. And with his solid corps of defense returning next year, there’s plenty of hope.
“The NCAA allows 132 days of practice, and for us it’s like we play 132 games,” said Deraney, whose Lady Friars join their men’s counterparts in capturing the inaugural Hockey East championship (the men won the 1985 championship, 2-1 in double overtime over Boston College). “Our practices are harder than our games and if you’re playing that hard every day, it’s just going to carry over into the games.
“It’s just a testament to our kids — they play good, hard, fundamental defense and that’s how you win championships.”
At last, the poker face is revealed.