Before the season, Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist stressed the importance of his defense rising to the occasion.
He talked about how his team had the tools to be great but needed to invest the time on both ends of the ice.
He talked about getting strong defense and timely goaltending, and he talked about how the talent level needed to be refined in order to get the team to the heights they expected but failed to achieve last season.
The stench of last year’s finish still hangs over the team, but it’s no longer a burden or a curse. Instead, it’s a motivating driver, one that has the Waltham, Mass., school on the heels of first-place Mercyhurst at the halfway point of the season. It’s also one that has the Falcons hunting for more among an unsatisfied feeling.
“I think if you look back over where we were, we got caught in the standings as a great offensive team that didn’t stop anyone [last year],” said Soderquist. “Heading into Christmas break, we were trying too hard to outscore teams, and we weren’t necessarily improving in the right ways on defense.
“We’ve gotten much better, but it’s more the attitude in the locker room and the commitment to the little things that’s gotten us to where we need to be.”
Bentley is one of the hottest teams in the nation, owning the fourth-longest current unbeaten streak at six games. They are 5-0-1 since they last lost to American International, and they were about 30 seconds away from being 6-0.
Most recently, they displayed dominant form at both ends of the ice, cleaning up a four-point weekend against Robert Morris with 4-1 and 7-2 victories.
“I told our guys in the locker room that we had to win the second period [on Friday],” said Soderquist. “We’d struggled at times with that during the year if you look back to the AIC and Holy Cross games. So it was key that we put some distance between ourselves and our opponent so we would be able to enjoy a bigger third-period lead.
“After we won the first game, I told them that Robert Morris wasn’t going to go away, that they were going to give us everything they could in the first period on Saturday, and we had to win that. If we could win that, we’d be in a position to do the same in the second.”
That’s exactly what happened: Up 1-0 after the first period, Bentley scored twice to take a 3-0 lead into the third on Friday.
On Saturday, the Colonials controlled game flow through the first five minutes, but Bentley responded with three goals. Reeling, RMU gave up three more in the second, ultimately being forced to use all three of its goalies over the course of the weekend.
Bentley’s top six skaters led the way. Alex Grieve scored a hat trick on Friday and assisted on all three goals by Brett Gensler, who became the program’s all-time Division I points leader in the process.
Andrew Gladiuk ended the weekend with six points, and Branden Komm tied the all-time program wins record by sweeping the weekend. He also increased his save percentage to .924 and lowered his conference GAA to 2.19.
The Falcons head this week to Agganis Arena and Boston University, looking to score the league’s fourth win over Hockey East opponents. The Terriers are reeling, having taken only one point from Merrimack, sitting in a shocking 10th place in the ultra-competitive league.
It’ll provide a “solid test,” according to Soderquist. “Any time you get the chance to play in a great arena against a great program, it’s a big moment. Our campus is rallying behind the team, and they’ve given us great support everywhere we’ve gone. The students, the alumni, the faculty, the administration — we’re hoping it continues [on Saturday].”
The great outdoors
This weekend kicks off the first of the AHA’s outdoor hockey games for the 2013-14 season.
Rochester Institute of Technology heads to Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings minor league baseball team, for a game under the lights against Niagara on Saturday.
That’ll be followed by a post-Christmas feast in Boston when rivals Holy Cross and Bentley launch the Frozen Fenway event at Fenway Park.
Outdoor games have come under fire lately for being overkill with the NHL’s Stadium Series watering down the Winter Classic. But this will be the first trip outside for the Tigers, Purple Eagles, Crusaders and Falcons.
RIT will play as part of a pairing with their women’s team on Saturday; the women’s team will take on Clarkson at noon before the men square off with Niagara at 7 p.m.
The Tigers have always enjoyed great support in the Rochester area, routinely packing Blue Cross Arena for an annual game at the minor league hockey venue.
Meanwhile, the Bentley-Holy Cross game will be played at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 28. Both teams’ alumni associations are planning events for the day in town, and their recent rivalry will create a special feeling to the kickoff event.
Bentley, the designated home team, will dress in the home clubhouse used by the Red Sox. Both games will count toward the AHA standings.
As part of our ongoing tracking of the West-East matchups, the East fared much better last weekend, splitting the week with the West 5-5-2.
The East was led by Bentley’s sweep of Robert Morris and Connecticut’s sweep of Niagara. The West struck where it needed to as RIT, one of the hottest teams in the league, swept American International and Mercyhurst handled Sacred Heart. Army drew a shocking split with Canisius, and Holy Cross tied Air Force on both nights.
Both divisions are featuring smoking hot guns. While Bentley is 5-0-1 in its last six games, RIT is 5-0 in its last five, tied for the fifth-best active unbeaten streak in the nation.
Connecticut is picking up steam by sweeping Niagara, and Holy Cross is proving much better than people bargained for.
Through two weeks of interdivisional play, the league is starting to separate into an upper echelon and a lower echelon. This time, however, there’s a healthy mix of East and West teams, which will make the second half of the season beyond interesting.
So you think you can dance?
Things are starting to wind down in the AHA’s first half, but that means it’s time to look at some of the neutral site and holiday extravaganzas that’ll take place in a couple of weeks between Christmas and New Year’s.
Robert Morris will host the Three Rivers Classic. The Colonials will renew a budding, great rivalry with Penn State, then face either Bowling Green or Boston College, who will meet in the unofficial Jerry York Bowl in the first game.
Canisius heads to Vermont to play in the Catamount Cup; it will draw Massachusetts-Lowell in the first game and the host Catamounts in their second of a predetermined draw.
Sacred Heart plays Connecticut in the UConn Holiday Classic in a game that counts toward the AHA standings. The tournament, moved to the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., also features Massachusetts and Quinnipiac.
Air Force heads to Dartmouth to play in the Ledyard National Bank Classic. The Falcons will draw Northeastern in the first round, then play either Providence or Dartmouth.
And Bentley draws Holy Cross in a conference game at Frozen Fenway in Boston.
Players of the week
You won’t get any argument out of me this week.
Offensive player of the week — Bentley forward Andrew Gladiuk: Gladiuk had a six-point weekend in the Falcons’ sweep over Robert Morris. Normally a sniper, he had three assists in the 7-2 victory on Saturday. He added two goals in that game for a five-point night. He is tied for the league lead in goals with teammate Alex Grieve, and he’s tied for third in the league for points with Mercyhurst’s Ryan Misiak. Bentley occupies three of the top four point spots, with Grieve and Steve Weinstein tied for first.
Goaltender of the week — Jimmy Sarjeant, Mercyhurst: It’s easy to discredit Sarjeant for putting up dominant stats against Sacred Heart; Mercyhurst is the league’s preeminent power this year and the Pioneers are one year removed from the doldrums of Division I. But the Aurora, Ontario, junior allowed just two goals over the whole weekend, stopping 30 and 37 shots in the process. He posted a .971 save percentage over the two games, raising his conference save percentage to .942 and lowering his conference GAA to 1.72.
Rookie of the week — Todd Skirving, RIT: Can we give him the rookie of the year award yet? Skirving continued to dominate his freshman campaign, scoring two goals and an assist in the RIT sweep of AIC. He potted the game winner on Friday with a third-period strike with about eight minutes to go, and he had an assist on Saturday on a power-play goal that helped ice a 5-2 victory. He leads the RIT skaters with 12 points, ranking second among conference rookies. All 12 of his points, though, have come in the last eight games, according to the league release.
Ohhhhh, we’re halfway there
Stay tuned for our midyear review next week as we approach the halfway point of the season. It’s hard to believe we’re already approaching the playoff stretch run, but it’s been one heckuva season, and this will be one of the few times you’ll get to see Chris and I lock our heads together since the season preview.
USCHO covers Atlantic Hockey all week long on the Atlantic Hockey Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.