Offense expected to excel again at Bentley, but defense needed to win title

Bentley’s Alex Grieve scored at least 30 points in each of his first three seasons (photo: Melissa Wade).

Nearly every team in Atlantic Hockey talks about growth. Few teams, however, experienced what’s been occurring at Bentley.

Over the past three seasons, the Falcons scored 341 goals. They produced 47 wins. They broke nearly every school record possible on both ends of the ice, then broke most of them again.

In an ultra-competitive atmosphere like Boston-area college hockey, they won games at Boston University and Fenway Park. Their leading scorer, Brett Gensler, broke Atlantic Hockey’s career scoring mark. Putting it further into perspective, they did it even with a 20-loss season in 2012-13.

Despite this, there’s one thing missing in Waltham, Mass. — a league championship. Bounced three years ago in the quarterfinals by Rochester Institute of Technology, Bentley came once again within a game of advancing to the league semifinals after beating Canisius in overtime in the first game of their second-round series. But fate intervened in the form of the defending AHA champions, and the Golden Griffins knocked them out with two straight wins.

That’s something failing to deter the Falcons, a team looking to continue its march forward as opposed to looking back.

“When you look at our team, we’re looking to pick up where we left off last year,” said coach Ryan Soderquist. “We have great leadership from our upperclassmen, and this team has done a good job of getting back to work to improve with every practice.”

Despite losing Gensler, the offense returns nearly every other major piece from a team finishing last year ranked eighth in the nation in scoring at 3.43 goals per game. Senior Alex Grieve had 47 points last year, breaking the single-season goal-scoring record along the way, and he’s scored at least 30 points in every season of his collegiate career.

Junior Andrew Gladiuk scored 22 goals, 16 of which came on the power play, and senior Steve Weinstein led all scoring defensemen with 38 points, 37 of which came via assist. Matt Blomquist, the linemate to Weinstein, chipped in 27 points of his own. Grieve, Gladiuk and Weinstein all broke a record in some capacity. And that’s still not counting the 30 points Brett Switzer scored.

But offense isn’t where Bentley wants to win games. Despite all that octane, their 13th-year head coach stresses power in the back, holding off teams with stingy defense as opposed to outscoring them.

“Our guys know that defense wins championships, and that’s something they always have to commit to,” said Soderquist. “That’s something we’re always trying to get better at and something we’re always looking to work at. When we open up the season, we want to make sure we’re playing well and continue to get better and better on both ends of the ice.”

Defensively, the Falcons will face tough questions. Even though they lost only one regular blue-line skater, they lost the best goalie in program history in Branden Komm, the all-time leader in wins, saves, save percentage and GAA.

Bentley will turn to two returners, Gabe Antoni and Blake Dougherty, along with freshman Jayson Argue. The Falcons also will deal with the loss of some of their two-way forwards, players like Jared Rickord and Andrew Fitzstephens. Look for Alex Kubiak to fill in that void along with defensemen like Mike Berry.

Like the other programs in the AHA, Bentley has experienced growth from its early era as a Division I program. The difference is that the Falcons are now closer than ever to the next breakthrough. But the challenge moving forward is to physically take the program to the next level, something that can be accomplished with continued success on and off the ice.

“If you look at where the program was to where it is now, there’s no question we’ve grown,” said Soderquist. “We have received great institutional support, growing support from passionate fans, and we’ve definitely stepped up in terms of becoming a much better program as a whole. But Atlantic Hockey is a very tough league and a lot of teams are getting better and growing. If we want to keep getting better, we have to work hard as a team and commit to our goals.”

About the Falcons

2013-14 record: 19-14-4

2013-14 conference record: 16-7-4 (second)

2014-15 predicted finish (coaches poll): Tie, fourth

Key losses: F Brett Gensler, F Jared Rickord, F Justin Breton, F Andrew Fitzstephens, D Zach Marginsky, G Branden Komm

Key returnees: F Alex Grieve, F Andrew Gladiuk, F Brett Switzer, F Max French, D Steve Weinstein, D Matt Blomquist, D Matt Maher, D Mike Berry

Impact rookie: He’s not really a rookie, but junior Billy Eiserman is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Massachusetts-Lowell. He will provide attitude and grit for a team stressing blue-collar hockey.

Why the Falcons will finish higher than the coaches poll: This team is potentially loaded with power, and it’s possible the offense gets better even after the departure of Gensler. If the defense improves and finds stability in goal, Bentley will feast on the fact that it plays three of four four-game series against Sacred Heart, Army and Holy Cross. That sets the Falcons up for a run at the trip to Rochester that’s deftly eluded them.

Why the Falcons will finish lower than the coaches poll: The defense was suspect at times last year, especially late in the year. Without Komm, that unit could find itself in deep trouble against improving league opponents if it fails to mature. Don’t forget that with all the records it set, Bentley lost 20 games two years ago.