Every week seems to bring another Atlantic Hockey story of a team rising through the ranks, breaking out.
The conversations discuss the hot teams who seemingly can’t be beat, and the talk is always about the logjam of programs who are already jostling for playoff position – even though it’s barely December.
Discussion of standings and teams usually happen at a high level, relying solely on final scores and winning percentages. So when a team fits itself for Cinderella’s glass slipper, nobody looked inside the numbers, ignoring the obvious signs.
If there’s a team readying for that second half breakout, it’s Bentley.
Sitting in ninth place with a 2-5-3 conference record (3-7-4 overall), the Falcons are the kind of team that’s currently lost in the shuffle among the league’s current leaders. But behind a youth movement of talented freshmen, they’re starting to pick up steam that will make them a dangerous team heading into the season’s second half.
“We’re pretty excited about our young players,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “And we feel that they’ve been getting better and better. That’s a credit to the leadership of the team. The senior class took the responsibility of getting the younger guys ready, to bring them along, and guide them as they’ve gotten adjusted to the college game.”
For Bentley, the senior class is the last link to some of the program’s most successful years, having won 36 games in its first two years. With those players entering their final semester of college, the team’s started to transition to a group of talented youngsters who needed to find their roles and grow into those different ideals.
“(The young guys) are a versatile group,” Soderquist said. “We started the year unsettled on who could play where since different guys could emerge on different nights. But we’ve really started to see players emerge in different spots, which goes back again to the leadership and how they’ve helped bring them along.”
On offense, senior Max French and junior Kyle Schmidt are no strangers to offense, having posted 40-point seasons a year ago with 73 career goals combined entering this season. They’ve been joined by the emergence of Ryner Gorowsky, a freshman with seven points in his last four games.
Defensively, it’s been a new look for Bentley.
For four years, Matt Blomquist patrolled the blue line. With his graduation, the Falcons lost a dynamic player but transformed as a unit, now led by sophomore Tanner Jago.
“Tanner’s grown into a signature role,” Soderquist said. “He started playing some signature minutes last year, but in the last four to five games, we’ve seen him really start to elevate his game to another level.”
Jago headlines a youth movement on defense that’s included one other sophomore (Alexey Solovyev, who missed time this year with an injury) and multiple freshmen (including Brett Orr and Tanner Salsberry). Playing with upperclassmen like Chris Buchanan, Charlie Donners, and Mike Berry, the scoring defense enters this weekend tied with Holy Cross for sixth in the conference.
It’s a good blend of defenders playing alongside a talented goalie with junior Jayson Argue returning to form.
“Our younger defensemen have handled their play very well,” Soderquist said. “And our goals-against average is still in the top half of the league as a result.”
Paired with senior leadership, there were growing pains.
The Falcons started the season strong with a win and tie against Hockey East foes New Hampshire and Northeastern, but lost four of their next five games. They’ve since tied American International in two games, split with Mercyhurst, and avoided a sweep on the road against Canisius. Of their three losses in their last seven games, all except for a 5-2 nonconference loss at Harvard have been in one-goal games.
Heading into this weekend against Robert Morris, Bentley might fly under the radar since a four-point radar wouldn’t lift them into the league’s top tier. With plenty of hockey left to play, as the second half of the season starts to dawn, young players learning from an experienced, successful senior class gives them the makeup of the league’s annual second half Cinderella.
Remembering a Nutmeg legend
This weekend marks the third annual Jason Pagni Memorial Game at Sacred Heart.
After playing Mercyhurst in Bridgeport on Friday, the series will shift to Avon Old Farms and the Fairchild-Jennings Rink.
All proceeds from the game are donated to the Connecticut Hockey Foundation, a non-profit that supports organizations bringing the game of hockey to all interested players. It was founded in memory of Jason Pagni, a local hockey icon who starred for Avon Old Farms in the 1980s and later played for Merrimack. A coach and advocate for the game, he passed away in Jan. 2013 in a car accident.
It’s hard to quantify his impact on the game of hockey, but I’ll try with this one story. Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick knows what it feels like to hoist a Stanley Cup, and he’s one of only four Americans to win a Conn Smythe Trophy. On the back of his mask is a small inscription with a quote from “Pags” stating, simply, “Everybody rides.”
Anything you can do…
Chris mentioned it after the end of the weekend, but let’s take another look at the RIT power play success.
The Tigers went 8-for-15 on the power play to boost their power-play efficiency from 31st (17.2%) to third (24.1%). They joined American International (fourth, 23.9%) and Robert Morris (fifth, 23.7%) among Atlantic Hockey teams nationally leading the man-up situations.
The league’s success in power play situations is nearly matched by its top trio of penalty killing units. Army West Point’s 91.3 percent penalty kill rate is second only to Penn State in the nation. They’re joined by Air Force and Canisius among the nation’s elite; the Falcons are eighth (88.16%, .01% behind Quinnipiac for seventh) and the Golden Griffins are 12th (86.42%).
He’s on fire
After helping his Crusaders to a three point weekend against Air Force this weekend, Holy Cross forward Danny Lopez extended a scoring streak to 12 straight games. Over his past dozen appearances for the purple and white, he’s scored seven goals and six assists. It’s the longest point streak for the program in 11 years.
Voyage en voiture!
This weekend features the annual meeting of the league’s longest bus trip when Robert Morris heads to Bentley. It’s approximately 615 miles from Moon Township, Pa., to Watertown, Mass., making this the furthest distance between two league opponents (excluding any trip to Air Force in Colorado Springs).
For reference, in the time it will take the Colonials to go to Bentley, someone could leave John A. Ryan Arena and reach Saguenay, Quebec, with just about 100 miles still unused. Saguenay is some 130 miles north of Quebec City.
Leaving the JAR and heading south, you’d be able to make it roughly to Roanoke, Va. – some 240 miles south of Washington, DC.
At the same time, someone could drive back and forth from Robert Morris to Washington, DC, then leave again and meet up with that Boston driver somewhere in the greater Roanoke area.
Players of the Week
Player of the Week: Canisius’ Ryan Schmelzer: Schmelzer notched five points in the three-point Canisius weekend against Bentley. That included a goal and two assists in the 4-3 victory on Friday night. He scored a goal and an assist in the 3-3 tie on Saturday.
Defensive Player of the Week: RIT’s Brady Norrish: Norrish was on fire this weekend, notching five assists and two blocked shots as part of a +2 weekend on the ice. He is sixth nationally with 15 assists on the season.
Goalie of the Week: Army West Point’s Parker Gahagen: The Black Knights split their weekend, beating AIC 1-0 on Friday before losing a non-conference game to Brown, 3-1, on Saturday. Gahagen recorded his fourth shutout with the win over the Yellow Jackets and made 32 saves in the defeat. He is in the top five nationally in goals against average (1.72) and save percentage (.939)
Rookie of the Week: Bentley’s Ryner Gorowsky: The Falcons’ diaper dandy scored four points, including a goal and an assist on Friday.