BOSTON — The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last year at this time, Providence finished first in the inaugural year of women’s Hockey East play, and went on to shut out New Hampshire 1-0 in the title game in the postseason tournament.
“The change” this year was that New Hampshire won the regular season, and an inconsistent start kept Providence off just about everyone’s top ten list for best programs in women’s college hockey. But in this year’s championship game, “the same” happened when the underdog Friars shut out New Hampshire again, this time 3-0, to win their second straight Hockey East tournament title.
“In our locker room, I wrote, ‘We haven’t played our best game yet. Champions play that game today.’ And we did,” said Bob Deraney, coach of Providence. “This is the best game of the year we’ve played, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
The title win marks the third consecutive year that Providence has won a postseason title; last year with Hockey East and the year before in the ECACs, where Providence entered as the No. 4 seed before capturing the title.
The game entered the third deadlocked at zero, and while both teams traded decent chances to score throughout the first 40 minutes, grade A opportunities were hard to come by.
Enter tournament Most Valuable Player Kelli Halcisak. On a turnover in the Providence zone, Halcisak, a senior, broke into the New Hampshire zone, feeding teammate Darlene Stephenson with a pass. While Stephenson’s strong shot was stopped by Wildcat goalie Melissa Bourdon, the rebound was left sitting in the crease for Halcisak to poke home for the game winning goal.
“It started with a blocked shot,” explained Halcisak. “I went in, and Darlene was open and took the shot. It’s something we work on all the time, getting to rebounds. And I banged it in.”
“They have the best difference-maker in the league, and she scored the first goal,” said Bruce McCloskey, New Hampshire head coach. “I’m happy to see her graduate,” he added, with a rueful smile.
“One of the things [the Wildcats] have been able to do all year is counter. You score a goal, and the next thing you know, BAM they score again,” explained Deraney. “If we were going to be fortunate to get the first goal — and we were — the biggest shift of the game is right after that goal, I thought, because they are such a quick countering team.
“If we could hold them off, I thought we would have a chance to win, and it worked out that way for us.”
That goal was a backbreaker in many respects. Not only did it come with more than half the time expired in the third, but also New Hampshire took more chances to generate offense, and the result was, at 18:30, a followup goal by Karen Thatcher on a one on none break into the UNH zone.
An empty net goal less than a minute later by Friar Rush Zimmerman ended any threat New Hampshire might have posed.
The loss was a disappointing end to an excellent season for New Hampshire (23-9-4), which entered the game with an 11-game unbeaten streak, including two wins over Providence in that span.
“I think the most significant championship to win, although it’s easy to say now, is the regular season,” said McCloskey. “The tournament comes down to one game and whoever is hot and performs can win. And Providence is the type of team that could take anyone out in a one game shot.
“I’m proud of what our kids accomplished all year. To lose just one league game out of 20 was pretty impressive. They played well and deserved to win it today.”
Those seniors include Kristen Thomas, who finished her career tied for first in scoring among UNH defensemen, forward Carolyn Gordon (115 pts.), and All Tournament defender Allison Edgar (95 pts.), among others.
On the other side of the coin was Providence (21-13-2), which overcame a 4-8-2 start to finish with a 17-5 record in its last 22 games. The Hockey East title was some redemption for an early start that left the Friars on the outside of the elite bubble of women’s college hockey teams.
Despite this win, Deraney had no illusions that his team might have a shot at the Women’s Frozen Four, played in, of all places, Providence next weekend.
“You have to have almost a perfect year,” he said. “Our early troubles were my fault, not our kids’. A coach can’t make that mistake. Maybe if the coach had figured it out earlier, we would have had a shot at a bid.”
Halcisak, who won the MVP for the second consecutive year, graduates in the elite annals as a defensemen with more than a point per game over her career. She finished with 159 points on 55 goals and 103 assists in 136 games. While Providence will suffer from not having her on the team next year, the Friars will soldier on.
“You can’t replace Kelli Halcisak, so we’re not even going to try,” said Deraney. “We’re just going to create a style of play where you can be successful. You can’t replace her.”
All Tournament Team: F Karen Thatcher, Providence; F Sonny Watrous, Providence; F Nicole Hekle, New Hampshire; D Alison Edgar, New Hampshire; D Kelli Halcisak, Providence; G Jana Bugden, Providence. Halcisak was named MVP.