Soderquist hopes challenges have solidified Bentley for second half

It’s probably too early to call this the “home stretch,” but things are getting serious in Atlantic Hockey.

This Friday will be the first time this season that all 12 teams are in conference play on a single day, and they’ll do it the next night as well. Almost all the odd single games against scheduling pod opponents have been played.

That means mostly two-game series from here on out and there are some good ones on tap for this weekend.

There are a few marquee matchups on tap: Holy Cross and Mercyhurst who are tied for third place; the intense Army and Air Force rivalry; and Bentley at Rochester Institute of Technology in a rematch of last year’s thrilling quarterfinal series. Each team can severely cripple the other’s chances of a first-round playoff bye with a sweep.

Bentley leads RIT by two points in the standings. The teams were picked to finish tied for fourth in the preseason poll, but the Falcons sit in sixth place; the Tigers are tied for ninth.

“We’ve been inconsistent,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “I thought we would be tighter on defense than we have been, especially returning our starting goaltender.

“I think we could have had a couple more wins. But I think we’ve been playing pretty well and in the long run we’ll be better because of the challenges we’ve faced.”

While Soderquist’s team is working to improve defensively, there’s no complaints about the offense, which is averaging 3.82 goals a game, best in the nation. The Falcons’ power play is third in Division I at 24.2 percent.

“We pride ourselves on a quick transition and look for opportunities to attack with numbers,” Soderquist said. “Obviously, we have a couple of great goal scorers.”

The Falcons are led up front by junior Brett Gensler, who is tied for third in the nation with 29 points, including 11 goals. Behind him is sophomore Alex Grieve with 19 points.

Rookie Andrew Gladiuk’s 10 goals is second on the team, and classmate Steve Weinstein is right behind him, scoring 15 points from the blue line. Both are strong candidates for rookie of the year.

“We knew that Gladiuk was a point producer and he’s certainly been that for us,” Soderquist said. “Weinstein was brought in as a steady defenseman who can contribute on the power play and he’s developed quickly.”

The series with RIT is a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal series taken in three games by RIT thanks to a pivotal second game won by the Tigers in double overtime.

“There’s always an incentive against a team that ended your season,” Soderquist said. “But we’re a different team and really focused in the development of our game. This is a key matchup for us.”

Bentley is coming off a nice 6-3 win at Northeastern. RIT split at St. Lawrence last weekend in a pair of close games that Tigers coach Wayne Wilson said prepared his team well for Bentley.

“We played a couple of hard-fought games against a skilled team,” Wilson said after Saturday’s game. “Bentley will be similar. They have some very skilled players and it’s an important series for us to start the second half of the season.”

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Daniel O’Donoghue, Mercyhurst

The junior had a hand in all five goals in a 5-2 win against Maine on Saturday. O’Donoghue recorded his first career hat trick and posted two assists. It was the most points by a Lakers player in over four years. He is tied for third on the team in scoring with six goals and six assists.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Garrett Bartus, Connecticut

Bartus stopped 42 of 43 shots in a 4-1 victory over Penn State on Saturday. He allowed a goal on the Nittany Lions’ first shot but was unbeatable after that.

Atlantic Hockey co-rookies of the week:
Willie Faust, Army
Shawn Pauly, Connecticut

Faust had his first multi-goal game in a 5-0 win over Robert Morris on Friday.

Pauly also had a pair of goals but over two games to help UConn to a sweep of Penn State.

Men of the month

The league has announced its monthly award winners:

Atlantic Hockey player of the month for December:
Mike Colavecchia, RIT

The junior forward posted three goals and three assists in four games. Overall, Colavecchia has 11 points in 10 games this season.

Other players nominated: Stephen Carew, Air Force; Brett Gensler, Bentley; Adam Schmidt, Holy Cross; Daniel Bahntge, Mercyhurst; Adam Brace, Robert Morris.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the month for December:
Eric Levine, Robert Morris

Levine was 4-0-2 in December and saved the best for last: a pair of shutouts on Dec. 28 and 29 to lead the Colonials to the championship of the inaugural Three Rivers Classic tournament. He is second in the country in save percentage (.954) and 12th in goals against average (1.81).

Other goalies nominated: Matt Grogan, Connecticut; Tony Capobianco, Canisius; Max Strang, Mercyhurst; Josh Watson, RIT.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the month for December:
Alexander Kuqali, RIT

Kuqali had four points in four games in December, including his first two collegiate goals.

Other rookies nominated: Joe Kozlak, Army; Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley; Tyler Bouchard, Connecticut; Kyle Cook, Mercyhurst.

National exposure

Army will be making its third appearance on national television this season when it plays at Air Force on Saturday. The game is on CBS Sports Network, as was last Friday’s 5-0 win over Robert Morris at Tate Rink. Army also appeared on NBC Sports Network in October in a 5-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha in the Icebreaker Tournament.

Air Force leads the series of classic rivals 31-20-4 all-time and 8-5-2 in Atlantic Hockey play.

Black and blue

Army, which normally wears black and gold, donned special blue jerseys to raise prostate cancer awareness last Saturday. Senior captain Cheyne Rocha scored Army’s only goal in a 4-1 loss to Robert Morris. Rocha was the primary organizer of what is now an annual event.

Hobey Baker, clap clap, clap clap clap

The first round of fan voting is open for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. There are 14 Atlantic Hockey players on the ballot. You can see the ballot and vote on the Hobey Baker Award’s website.

Which was the upset?

Mercyhurst defeated Maine in Orono 5-2 on Saturday after the Black Bears had pulled out a 2-1 victory in Portland on Friday. The loss to Mercyhurst has increased the grumbling of Maine fans, who have had a rough year other than a shining moment at the Florida College Hockey Classic.

It was certainly considered an upset, as is virtually every time an Atlantic Hockey team wins a non-conference game.

But this season the odds are 38 percent that the AHA team wins a non-conference game, 32 percent if you throw out Penn State. Does one in three automatically mean upset? Especially when 85 percent (excluding Penn State) of those games are played on the road?

Mercyhurst went into the Maine series with a better record and better rankings in the RPI and PairWise Rankings. Under what conditions could its win be considered an upset? If there was an upset in that series, it was on Friday.

Sad news

On Monday, Connecticut announced that coach Bruce Marshall had stepped down. Marshall, who was in his 25th season as head coach and had been at UConn as a coach, player and assistant since 1980, had taken a medical leave of absence in early November.

Assistant coach David Berard will remain the interim coach of the Huskies through the end of the season.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Marshall for almost 20 years and seen him guide the program from a Division III league (where we won national coach of the year in 1992) to the brink of joining Hockey East, compiling 377 wins and a MAAC championship along the way. Best wishes.