The ultimate Cinderella story remained alive Friday night as Bentley, a team that six weeks ago looked headed for the golf course, upset Mercyhurst, 3-2 in double overtime, to advance to the Atlantic Hockey championship game for the first time in school history.
Bentley, which will face host and No. 1 seed Holy Cross in Saturday’s title game, won its second consecutive double overtime game, having beat Army, 4-3 in two OTs in last Saturday’s quarterfinal.
The winner of the Holy Cross-Bentley game will be guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament as the AHA’s autobid.
The game ended just 58 seconds into the second extra session when Jaye Judd fired a rocket of a shot off Mercyhurst goaltender Tyler Small’s (53 shots) left shoulder. It was Judd’s second goal of the night after having not previously scored this season.
“This is the biggest win in this program’s history,” said Soderquist, whose club, even with the win, remains a game below .500 at 15-16-5. “I felt we earned this victory. This wasn’t an upset in my eyes.”
Though Soderquist may not see this as an upset, history says it was. This was a victory almost along the proportions of the U.S.-Russia game in the 1980 Olympics. Bentley hadn’t just lost the first four meetings with Mercyhurst this season, they’d been demolished. The Lakers had outscored the Falcons, 27-13, in its four wins this year and had scored 11 power-play goals in the series to Bentley’s two.
On Friday, though, all of that changed.
The factors involved were plentiful. Bentley has been, for the first time all season, getting consistent goaltending. Ray Jean, who was benched the last time the Falcons played Mercyhurst on February 11, was a force in the Bentley net stopping 37 of 39 shots.
At the same time, the Bentley penalty kill held the Lakers off the board in all ten opportunities, including three in the first overtime period.
On the other side of the puck, Bentley’s power play mustered 29 shots in 11 chances and scored once.
Compared to the first four times these clubs met, this game was an antithesis.
“There’s no question that it’s tougher to [beat one team five times in one season],” said Lakers head coach Rick Gotkin. “I didn’t see anything different from [Bentley], I just thought they got great goaltending tonight.”
In a way, Jean’s performance was so spectacular, stopping countless Mercyhurst bids at key points, that it somewhat overshadowed Judd’s two goals. Judd, who is known primarily for his defensive prowess, hadn’t scored a goal since a 5-4 victory over Mercyhurst on January 28, 2005.
“We don’t judge Jaye’s play by his stats in terms of his goals,” said Soderquist. “His plus/minus is very strong. He’s one of our leaders on defense back there all year. In a game like tonight, keeping Mercyhurst, one of the best offenses, to two goals, that’s what a guy like Jaye has been doing all year.”
Despite both teams having ample opportunities on the power play early on, it was goaltending that dominated this game and kept things tight through two periods.
Jean stopped Mercyhurst’s Kyle Gourgon on a breakaway at 11:50 of the first period only to see his counterpart get enough of a Tom Dickhudt shot at 13:09 to deflect it wide of an open net.
In the second, Jeff Gumear caught Small deep in his crease and fired a shot that appeared headed for the top corner until the crossbar got in the way, solidly rejecting the shot just 35 seconds into the frame.
Small then was forced to stone Judd at 7:49, and then Gumear twice more while Bentley was on a 5-on-3 man advantage at 13:30. In fact, the Mercyhurst kill of the two-man power play seemed to give the Lakers life and at 16:55 they finally broke through.
All-American candidate Jamie Hunt scored his 12th goal and 45th point of the season as a defenseman when he pushed a shut in a scrum in front past Jean for the 1-0 lead.
Seconds later, Bentley had the chance to tie things when leading scorer Anthony Canzoneri was sent in on a breakaway. Small stacked the pads to deflect the shot, sending the Lakers to the locker room clinging to the one-goal lead.
Early in the third, Bentley finally solved Small. After Mercyhurst’s Conrad Martin took an ill-advised penalty for crosschecking after the whistle, Judd made the Lakers pay, one-timing home a Dickhudt pass into the upper left corner at 2:55 to even the game at one.
Bentley took the momentum, keeping the Lakers without a shot for more than four minutes. And at 9:53, the Falcons were the beneficiaries of some puck luck to take a 2-1 lead.
After Dickhudt was stopped on a partial breakaway, Mark Zwicky fired a harmless looking pass across the crease that hit a Mercyhurst defenseman’s skate and bounced into the net.
Both teams played back and forth hockey from there on out and, after killing a penalty at with six minutes remaining, Mercyhurst got the momentum to even the game. Scott Champagne finished of a perfect tic-tac-toe passing play, pushing the puck into a wide open net with 4:23 remaining to tie the game at two.
Bentley threatened late and drew a delay of game penalty with 1:17 left in regulation when the Lakers’s Ben Cottreau pushed the net off its moorings.
Once that penalty was killed in the opening minute of the overtime session, referee Ed Boyle made a clear statement that he was not putting his whistle away. Boyle gave both side power plays in overtime, putting a potential end in the hands of special teams.
Ironically, it was the shorthand that created the best early chance as Mercyhurst’s Scott Reynolds was sent in alone shorthanded only to have his push the puck just wide of the open right post at 5:45.
Bentley’s Zwicky had a shorthanded bid of his own at 8:20 only to have Hunt make a great diving play with his body to break things up.
Champagne got one final chance for the Lakers when he was sent in alone in the final seconds of the first OT. He admitted that he rushed the play somewhat and didn’t get off the shot he wanted, burying the puck into Jean.
From there, it was Judd’s chance to lift Bentley within a game of school history. The Falcons have never made the NCAA tournament in hockey at any level.
For Mercyhurst, its season ends short of back-to-back titles and NCAA bids for the third time in the past six years. The Lakers finish the season at 22-13-3.
Bentley will face Holy Cross, a team similar to Mercyhurst, that it has yet to beat this season. A bigger factor than that, though, might be fatigue, as the Crusaders’ game ended nearly five hours earlier than Bentley’s.
The Falcons don’t see that as a problem.
“It was a long game tonight,” said Judd. “Everyone is a little tired but to be in the final and know you’re one game short of the NCAA tournament will take care of that.”