This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 12, 2006

The Ultimate Upset

“All year we’ve been playing really well and haven’t had a lot to show for it.”

The words of Army head coach Brian Riley show the frustration the second-year coach has had to this point in the season.

To win any game is big at this point. So how do you classify a two-game sweep of first-place Mercyhurst?

Words can’t describe it.

That being the case, Army let its actions do the talking last weekend in a two-game set against the Lakers. The Black Knights capitalized on what Riley called an off night on Mercyhurst’s part, routing the Lakers, 5-0.

A night later, after waking the sleeping giant, Army played one of its better games of the season, continued to quell the Laker attack, and eked out a 3-2 overtime victory.

“You think going into overtime that this would be a great weekend coming out even if you get a tie,” said Riley.

A random puck thrown to the net in overtime that banked off a Mercyhurst defender turned into the game-winning goal and gave the Black Knights the improbable sweep.

Backboning the sweep, once again for Army, was goaltender Brad Roberts, who finished the weekend with 70 saves. His consistency this season has been almost unmatched, particularly in big games.

There’s no irony to the fact that Roberts’ two weekend sweeps have come last weekend against Mercyhurst and earlier in the year against rival Air Force.

“It seems like the bigger the game for Brad, the more he likes it,” said Riley. “He’s always so focused. He has such an intensity to win.”

Army’s timing seems to be pretty good right now. With the Mercyhurst series in the rear-view mirror, this weekend the Black Knights will bump heads with yet another tough team, Holy Cross.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” said Riley. “You get four points and then you’re staring at Holy Cross. So it’s hard not to get too high or too low.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army: It was a strange week for weekly awards in Atlantic Hockey as, for the first time in my memory, all of the awards went to goaltenders. Roberts led that charge. Making 70 saves on 72 shots, he shut down the nation’s top-scoring offense, holding Mercyhurst to just two goals. Friday night’s shutout was Roberts’ second of the season.

Goaltender of the Week

Jason Smith, Sacred Heart: Smith may not have picked up a weekend sweep like three of his counterparts, but he did have a two-win week, making 29 saves against Bentley on Tuesday and then returning with 30 more in a victory over Holy Cross on Friday. Smith’s one loss saw his highest save total, 33 in a 3-2 loss at Holy Cross on Saturday.

Rookie of the Week

Tom Fenton, American International: They might as well name this one the Tom Fenton Memorial Award, as the rookie goaltender from AIC has been doing quite the job winning it. Fenton swept Canisius, making 60 of 63 saves to earn AIC’s first weekend sweep in more than four years.

Solidifying Situation in Falcons Net

For Bentley, this season has witnessed a revolving door at the goaltending position.

With the graduation last year of veteran Simon St. Pierre, head coach Ryan Soderquist hoped that one of the three goaltenders on this year’s club could step up and play well enough to be reliable, night in and night out.

Geordan Murphy, a senior, was the only goalie with any game experience and his 23 games played and the 3-11-0 record that accompanied didn’t speak volumes. Soderquist was high on rookie Jason Kearney, but understood that he’d likely need some adjustment time to the college game.

That left Ray Jean, a transfer from Maine who served as third-string goaltender to all-American Jimmy Howard. There was a thought coming into the season that Jean might be the man in net, but in the early going, neither Jean nor his goaltending compadres stood out to Soderquist.

“Thus far this year, no one has been able to go back-to-back and prove themselves two games in a row,” said Soderquist with some excitement in his voice. That excitement stemmed from Jean’s performance last weekend when he allowed just one goal on both Friday and Saturday nights and earned a critical two-game sweep of UConn.

“I was excited about that,” Soderquist said. “Ray played well on Friday night and felt good so we gave him another shot at it.”

Soderquist has been impressed by Jean’s experience. Though he never played at Maine, he still was surrounded by the winning culture that the Black Bears program’ stood for.

“His experience and the way that he’s been approaching practices and approaching the season have put him over the edge as the guy stepping up,” said Soderquist. “He wants to win. He’s played at Maine on teams that have done very well. So he feels that our team can do that within our league and he’s excited about that.”

In addition to goaltending success, the weekend series against UConn saw the Falcons overcome deficits on both nights. Saturday, that was amplified when Bentley trailed, 1-0, in the closing minutes, only to score four times before the game’s end to earn a 4-1 victory.

“We’re real excited about the comebacks,” said Soderquist. “We didn’t get rattled whatsoever. Even when we were down 1-0 late in the third, we were going harder and harder. We didn’t fold at all.

“It seems like we’re finally going out and winning games rather than hanging around waiting for other teams to lose.”

Though it’s hard to admit that any one game or series is more important than others, a quick look at the standings shows that, come season’s end, both Bentley and UConn might be pointing back to last weekend’s series as critical. The two teams are neck-and-neck in the race for home ice.

So with that sweep in hand, Soderquist and his club continue to try to climb the Atlantic Hockey ladder. That continues this weekend against a red-hot American International squad, a club for which Bentley will need to be prepared from the get-go — or be prepared to be dealt a loss.

Our hurdle still is being able to be prepared to play every game,” said Soderquist. “We just got by [AIC with a 2-1 win] before Christmas break. It’ll be a tough series.”

Over the Hump, Finally

If you’ve been paying attention for the last month or so, one item you might recognize is the fact that American International was very close to moving over the hump towards winning.

Defensively, AIC had only allowed more than two goals in a game once in the last seven games. The hump that really was the problem for AIC was its offense.

The issue for AIC was getting all of its stars to align at once. Many knew that when that actually happened, the competition was in for a rude awakening.

Well, Canisius was the eventual recipient of that awakening when last weekend AIC’s offense finally opened up and the defense and goaltending came through in back-to-back 2-1 and 5-2 victories.

Though it’s easy to point to various areas of the AIC game plan that clicked, everything started in net, where rookie goaltender Tom Fenton made a combined 60 saves over the two games.

“You’ve seen statistically that the last few league games, Tom has an excellent goals against average,” said AIC head coach Gary Wright, whose team hadn’t swept a two-game weekend series since November 9-10, 2001. “He’s played very well and been very consistent. He’s shown himself to be mentally tough and those are all good qualities for a goaltender.”

It’s no coincidence that Fenton’s quick development comes in a season when AIC hired former Merrimack standout Joe Exter. Exter, possibly known best for the life-threatening injury that he suffered when he collided with Boston College forward Patrick Eaves in March of 2003, was also always known for his intensity, focus and preparation. All of those have rubbed off on AIC’s goaltenders, as well as the team.

“As a player, Joe was a workhorse and he has that same expectation for our goalies,” said Wright. “That work ethic has shown.

“He went through a pretty traumatic experience. He showed tremendous fortitude fighting through that and recovering. He hasn’t been overly overt about that with our players, but they’re aware of that.

“One of the biggest things that he’s brought to our program is his passion for the game and his work ethic. That’s rubbed off on some of our players and definitely on our goaltenders.”

Wright credits the solidification of the goaltending position as having a positive impact on the rest of the team. He said that the goaltending “fosters a greater sense of confidence in the players.”

Wright also points to the fact that his team has simply improved, on both side of the puck, from recent versions. That factor may not have shown early in the win-loss column but, as the team has had a chance to gel, the Yellow Jackets have proven stronger both on offense and defense.

“This year our shot differential is a lot closer than it was last year,” Wright said. “At this juncture we’re going right up and down the ice with teams. We’re not depending on our goalie to make save after save.

“Our defensemen are playing very well. But also, we’re just in general a little more potent offensively. We still struggle a little to score goals and that’s clear. But very simply, we’ve evened it off territorially than last year.

“One of the big factors is we’ve taken pressure off ourselves defensively because we’re spending a little more time in the opponent’s end with puck possession.”

So let’s get this right: Defense is coming from offense for once, instead of the other way around?

“It’s all pretty interrelated. We emphasize, as much as any other team, a lot of defense,” Wright said. “But we’ve had to emphasize offense too, because we haven’t gotten much of that. Certainly one of our team strengths is our defensemen, but we’ve got a little more skill up front so we’re not playing defense all night.”

Parting Shots

• Army will honor the late Derek Hines, a former Black Knights team captain, prior to this Saturday’s game with Holy Cross. Hines, who graduated from West Point in 2003, was killed in the line of duty this past fall while serving in Afghanistan.

• Canisius has never finished lower than seventh place since becoming a Division I team, but that’s now at risk. After being swept last weekend by AIC, the Griffs sit in last place (eighth) in Atlantic Hockey.

• Bentley, with six league wins, has already surpassed its total from a season ago.

• Connecticut, after posting four straight wins down the stretch in 2005, has now lost a season-high four games in a row.