This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Jan. 24, 2008

Assumptions? You know the old chestnut concerning assumptions.

“When you assume, you make an…”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

And yet coming into the current season, and perhaps even halfway through it there were reasonable assumptions to be made concerning the eight teams that will make up this year’s NCAA tournament.

That seven spots will come from a mix involving the powerful WCHA (from whence all seven Frozen Four champions have come), the ECAC, and the CHA’s Mercyhurst.

The remaining one, and only one, would be dished out to the Hockey East champion, which it was assumed (there’s that word again) would be New Hampshire.

And you know, it may play out just that way.

But then again, perhaps not. Not if Providence College has anything to say about the matter.

PC was consigned to “also-ran” status at the beginning of the year, and quite frankly, the Friars did little in the first weeks to suggest otherwise.

A tie in the season opener by weak sisters Maine, followed by blowout losses at St. Lawrence and UConn … who would have figured that this once-mighty program could give itself the Lazarus treatment in less than a season.

But it has, and now after going 8-3-1 since Thanksgiving, PC has folks in Hockey East a little wary, if not down right nervous.

“I think Providence is really going to challenge us,” said New Hampshire coach Brian McCloskey. “Not only will they make our league tournament … I think they’d be a favorite to make it to the championship game. They’re an ultra-aggressive team. One of the more aggressive teams that we’ve played. They gap right up and they challenge our players. That creates times when we weren’t being patient and turned the puck over. I think they’re good.”

McCloskey and his Wildcats saw just how good last Saturday, on their Olympic-sized home rink, when they escaped from a matinee date with the Friars with a 1-1 tie.

It put the first blemish on UNH’s spotless HEA record (10-0-1). It also injected a little hubris into the Friar psyche.

“Actually it was a little disappointing,” said PC goalie Danielle Ciarletta, “because last week we beat Mercyhurst. We were hoping to get a ‘W’. But a point against a number-one seed is really something to hold on to.”

For Ciarletta — a junior who transferred from Minnesota-Duluth — two seasons helped protect that point, having stopped all but one of the 28 shots the Wildcats fired her way.

“All season long, in our locker room, we’ve felt that we’re just as good as anyone in the country. When we go out there on the ice, we’re looking to beat them, get the two points, and move on. We know big games when we win them. We don’t take them for granted, at all. But we don’t feel as though we’re behind anyone, really.”

Time will tell, of course. Time, as well as a grueling stretch run that features two more tussles with UNH, plus two each with Boston College and UConn, their chief rivals for Hockey East elbow room.

Chances are that the Friars will have to get past all three to make it back to the NCAA tourney.

But Ciarletta thinks that they’re playing their best hockey of the season at a time when every game, every shift, can make a difference.

“I think earlier in the season, we just had a few pieces that were missing,” Ciarletta said. “I wasn’t playing my best hockey, in the beginning. And we weren’t playing our best, defensively. When you combine those two things, things are going to look a little ugly. But we’ve been working as a team to get everyone on the same page. I think we’ve done it. And I think it’s showed.”

Ciarletta got no argument from her coach, the effervescent Bob Deraney, who took the Friars to their lone NCAA berth back in 2005.

“What she says is true,” he said. “At the beginning of the year she wasn’t really playing her best. But neither were we. That’s the difference. We’re playing a lot more consistent hockey at a higher level, than we did at the beginning.”

To do this, said Deraney, the Friars have to, as they say, “stay within themselves.”

“We’re focusing on what we need to do to be a great team,” he said. “If you’re focusing on Mercyhurst one week and UNH the next week, they’re two completely different teams. All we can really control are the pieces that we have. How can we put them in a position to be successful. And put a system in place that will allow them to flourish. That’s really what we’re doing. We didn’t try to slow UNH down. Our players were just at their best, using their strengths.”

Strength isn’t a word usually associated with Hockey East, which with a few wrinkles, has been New Hampshire and everybody else since the league was birthed in 2002.

But McCloskey said he doesn’t mind being prodded by a worthy rival or two.

“I’m excited,” he said. “(About) the fact that (they’re) another team that can give us some tough, tenacious competition. Because we need it. We need to have competition within our league. If you look at the WCHA or ECAC, there are always in each league there are a couple teams struggling. But if the middle of the pack (must be able) challenge (number) one. It’s clearly that way out (West). And I think it’s going to be in our league. I think our tournament is going to be tough, too.

“I think BC has had their ups and downs, but Katie (King)’s team is mercurial. They can throw a great game at you. And I like Heather (Linstad’s) team at UConn. And I think the sleeper in the mix is BU. They’re a much better team than people realize. I’m not so much concerned as enthusiastic about our league. At the start of the year, it looked like our league might be down.”

Now for that thorny matter of a second HEA team being able to sweep the Selection Committee off its feet.

Without conceding that his own Wildcats, who have borne the nation’s No. 1 ranking since December, were a slam-dunk for a spot, he did allow that the Friars could well join the post-season party.

“It’s conceivable,” he said. “If they come out an knock us off. That’s probably how our league would get two. That’s probably the other leagues’ worst nightmare. And you know something? Watching Providence today, I’d be concerned. They’re good enough.”