This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 22, 2004

Time is now for Bentley

The ultimate surprise last season was the play of the Bentley Falcons. Perennial league doormats, Bentley last year flourished under rookie head coach Ryan Soderquist, who took the team to the league semifinals for the first time in school history.

Losing little and returning that tournament experience, it was thought that the Falcons would have the chance this season to take a step forward — to move from the middle-to-bottom of the league into the upper echelon.

A ridiculously slow start, though, for the Falcons has left the club reeling in the cellar. And with that thought in mind, Soderquist is one of many to feel that the time is most certainly now.

“The [phrase] ‘pivotal point’ is there,” said Soderquist in describing his team’s upcoming series with American International, a team tied with Bentley for last place in the league. “This is a huge weekend. We need four points this weekend. We had a week off and before that we played our best hockey of the year.”

That top-notch play, though, came against Mercyhurst, which has played well since the Christmas break, and topped Bentley 2-1 and 3-2. The lack of a reward in the win column ran Bentley’s record to 1-6-4 in league play and 3-11-4 overall.

More than anything, though, it put pressure on Bentley to perform this weekend.

“We’re playing well. If we get a couple of [wins] this weekend, we’re doing well,” said Soderquist. “We’re 2-2-2 in our last six, so if we win two, we’re 4-2-2 in our last eight. That’s a good run.”

As for his opponent, AIC is a similar team to his. Both teams have talent in certain positions — Soderquist pointed out that AIC goaltender Frank Novello is a showstopper. That said, he believes that following his club’s game plan should be enough to take down the Yellow Jackets.

“They are a carbon copy of us,” Soderquist said of AIC. “We played them twice this year and both games we dominated, but won one, 6-2, and lost one in overtime.”

As solidly as Bentley goalie Simon St. Pierre in net, Novello can be a gamebreaker.

“Their goalie is incredible and that’s how they play,” said Soderquist. “They weather the storm and then break out and score a quick goal.”

Besides just the fact that Soderquist’s club is playing AIC, there’s more on the line this weekend for the Falcons. Since home success is what makes teams in this league, Bentley and Soderquist know that the way they perform in their own barn makes a world of difference.

“We haven’t had a home win yet,” Soderquist said. “So I told them we have to get a win at home. We have seven more home games and we have to win there.

“In addition, we’ve been playing really well. The wins and losses might not be there, but in the last 9 or 10 games we’ve played as well as I’ve ever seen out of any Bentley team.

“Our guys know that at any point we’re good enough to rattle off three or four wins in a row and assuming the standings won’t be two or three points separating five teams so a few wins in a row can do something.

Now, though, it’s time to turn talk into action. Bentley will look for offensive performances from its youthful top line of Brenden McCartin, Jake Plattner, and Paul Markarian. The trio has scored 27 points on the season, and is the main sparkplug in the Bentley offense — particularly in the absence of senior captain Joe Lovell, who broke his foot in early January and is expected to miss at least two more weeks (Plattner is replacing Lovell on the top line).

But regardless of who puts the puck in the net, the message from Soderquist is “score.” Only a strong offense will begin to get near the goals set after last year’s successful season.

“We haven’t emphasized any weekend as much as this weekend because we’re heading into the home stretch,” Soderquist said. “But we’ve been playing good hockey and this is the weekend where good isn’t good enough. We have to win, so there’s a little more pressure on our guys.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Dave Borrelli, Mercyhurst (So., F, Sault Ste. Marie, ONT) — Borrelli scored three goals on seven shots and finished +2 as the Lakers swept AIC by identical 4-3 scores Friday and Saturday on home ice. Borrelli had the Lakers’ second goal early in the second period Friday to give his team a 2-0 lead, but saved the best for last. He scored the final two Mercyhurst goals in Saturday’s win. He gave the Lakers a 3-2 lead on a power play goal at 14:00 of the third and then scored the game-winner at 16:50 after the Yellow Jackets had tied the contest at 3-3. It was his first game-winner of the season. Borrelli is now tied for the team lead in goals with 11 and is tied for fifth in points with 15. He has a five-game scoring streak.

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army (So., G, Cassville, NY) — Posted a win and a loss with 81 saves and a .931 save percentage against Air Force. Roberts backstopped Army to a 4-3 victory over the Falcons Friday night, making 40 saves in the process. The Cassville, N.Y., native followed up that performance with a 41-save effort Saturday night in a 3-0 loss to the Falcons. His 41 stops Saturday night were a season high for the preseason “Goalie of the Year” favorite.

Freshman of the Week

Ryan Cruthers, Army (Fr., F, Farmingdale, NY) — Cruthers scored the game-winning goal in Friday’s 4-3 victory over Air Force and assisted on Casey Bickley’s power-play marker that gave the Black Knights a 1-0 lead in the first period.

Who Bear the Cross

The recent hubbub over Vermont leaving the ECAC and Findlay folding up shop has left an aura over Atlantic Hockey, one that feels like more change is in the offing.

Rumors are the daily norm for the league, ranging from Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst going to the CHA, to the league joining forces in a merger with the CHA.

One rumor that seems to have legs is the thought that Holy Cross, a successful program which can give need-based financial aid that doesn’t count against the league’s 11-scholarship policy, might make a break from the Atlantic league, of which it is a founding member.

Right now, there’s one thing certain: head coach Paul Pearl’s lips are sealed. That, though, doesn’t mean that other sources are doing the same. According to some of those in the know, the Crusaders have begun talks with the ECAC to join as a 12th member now that Vermont has headed to Hockey East.

Should that happen, it could be a major jolt for Atlantic Hockey. Holy Cross stands as a cornerstone member with a long hockey tradition and the ability to recruit top student-athletes with or without scholarship limitations.

Looking at the other side of the coin, Holy Cross is a perfect fit for the ECAC. With 11 teams, the majority of the league are now Ivy members (six of the remaining 11), and Holy Cross itself follows an Ivy-like philosophy of academics and athletics (the Ivy League itself has a no-scholarship policy).

Barriers, though, may exist in the admissions office. The Crusaders have not been known to lower their academic standards to accommodate the recruitment of a blue-chip athlete. Rumor has it, at least, that the Ivies over the past years have been able to “pull in” a few players each season.

In addition, despite the fact that Holy Cross’ facility, the Hart Center, is one of the best in Atlantic Hockey, it would rank among the least in the ECAC.

Along with all of this talk, though, goes the question: what does the ECAC want?

Would the league prefer a team that commits more resources to the league, such as a Mercyhurst or Quinnipiac? Each club has long griped to add scholarship dollars above the league-mandated cap.

Or would the ECAC prefer to sway a more established program? Army might be a good option, though the Black Knights might have a been-there-done-that attitude, having once been a member of the ECAC. Niagara might be a semi-good fit. The program is established with an NCAA tournament visit to its credit, and isn’t a bad geographic match for the league.

But an almost-forgotten option I think is most feasible is that the ECAC could stay at 11 teams. Sure, a 12th team would simplify the travel-partner philosophy of the league, but the ability to break away from that and form a schedule conducive to 11 clubs would be the simplest method of solving the current membership problem.

Eyes will stay peeled, ears to the ground, but right now rumors concerning the Cross are nothing more than that. Just like baseball’s Ramirez/A-Rod deal, there’s plenty of talk, but little movement.

I’ll believe it when I see movement.