Every college hockey program has an identity.
It’s what defines them in certain situations, and it’s what becomes the oft-seen hallmark of them through the years.
It’s something each program embraces as a cornerstone, and it becomes the one thing to look for in every game.
For years, Bentley embraced the concepts of blue-collar hockey. The Falcons became known for fighting pucks out of corners, blocking shots and winning special teams battles. In that last point, it was especially true on the penalty kill.
After a rough start to this season in that category, the Falcons are once again flexing their muscle as a team that does the little things to win games. Winners of five of their last eight games, they especially showed that mettle in a four-point sweep on the road at RIT this past weekend.
“We did a lot of the little things all weekend long,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “We had timely blocked shots, and our defensemen played well below the dots in front of our net. The penalty kill was great all weekend, and the power play was arguably the strongest that it’s been all season.”
For the power play unit, it was an especially watershed weekend. In the first half of the season, the Falcons failed to score a man-up goal over a six-game stretch in October and November, going 0-for-19 over that stretch. With only two power-play goals in the season’s first four games, they sat, at one point, at a paltry 5.2 percent.
But after a slow climb brought them up to 8.5 percent by the end of the first half of the year, the unit awoke with force to start January. This month, they’ve failed to score a power-play goal in only one game, and they went 3-for-5 this past weekend in the sweep of the Tigers. Their scoring prowess, a tune of 37 percent last month alone, elevated them to 16.5 percent on the season.
“We’ve done a really nice job of getting pressure,” Soderquist said. “We haven’t been a one-and-one team in the offensive zone, and we’ve done a really good job of picking up rebounds in the corners, which is helping create second and third chances. It hasn’t been our setup, but we’ve just been doing the things we need to, wearing down our opponent’s penalty kill unit.”
It’s more than just the power play, though. The penalty kill unit killed at about a 75.5 percent rate in the first half of the year. It spent January hovering around 80 percent. The five percent increase may only translate to one goal every other game or so, but the Falcons had two one-goal victories last month.
In a true case of where math meets truth, RIT failed to score a power play goal in eight chances against the Falcons this past weekend and were swept. Earlier this year, Bentley tied Army West Point 5-5 in a game in which they came back from down 5-2. In that game, however, the Black Knights had two power-play goals. A goal here and a goal there, therefore, could be the difference in a win or loss.
Individually, players are starting to reap the benefits of those rewards. Junior Kyle Schmidt now leads the team with 16 goals, thanks in part to five power play goals. Half of senior Max French’s 10 goals have come in the situation. And that breakout is allowing younger players like freshman Jonathan Desbiens to flourish. As of this week, the rookie has eight goals, four of which came last week against RIT and included his first career hat trick.
“We have wanted our freshmen to get better,” Soderquist said. “There’s a saying that there are no freshmen in the second half; their feet are now wet enough that they can play with everyone. We had a concern that (Desbiens) wasn’t making his own luck in the first year, working for pucks and creating chances for goals. But he’s been competing for the full 200 feet, and it’s producing results.”
The emergence of freshman Brett Orr in the defensive unit is being met with the breakout of fellow rookie Aidan Pelino. Orr’s scored 12 points since Christmas break, while Pelino had two victories for the Falcons last month.
“Our defensive zone starts (our breakout),” Soderquist said, “and it’s not getting hemmed into our own zone. Breakouts have a way of really helping to feed the offense. Aidan manages a game well, and he’s very calm. He’s made strides in a short time, and at the same time, he’s helped Jayson Argue. Jayson’s played great for us, and having Aidan has created a competition while not creating a pressure (in net).”
The Falcons look to continue their hot streak this weekend when they face one of their stiffest challenges all year with two games at home against Air Force. Earlier this year, the academy split with the Falcons in Colorado.
Home Stretch Run Beginning
February is the last month of the regular season, and every weekend will provide critical points needed for playoff positioning. As of this weekend, clinching scenarios are already starting to come into play.
Canisius’ win on Tuesday clinched the Golden Griffins a first-round home series. They can actually seal themselves up to the sixth seed if everything breaks the right way, though they can’t officially clinch a first-round bye.
Air Force, meanwhile, needs just two points this weekend to assure themselves of at least home ice in the first round.
Conversely, one point by Bentley or Sacred Heart would send Niagara on the road in the first round. The Purple Eagles are off this weekend.
My goal is to stay on top of this each weekend so we can outline this as much as possible for all teams heading into the final sets of games.*
*If my math is incorrect on this, I welcome any and all corrections.
It’s unlikely that Atlantic Hockey will get a second team into the national tournament.
Its top teams in the Pairwise Rankings – Air Force and Robert Morris – are just far enough outside of the bubble that they would need anarchy, chaos, and calamity in order to sneak their way into an at-large bid. But this season is representing an overall deeper run for the AHC.
Only two of Atlantic Hockey’s teams are currently rated 50th or lower in the Pairwise Rankings, and three teams sit inside the top 30, with Canisius tied for 29th in the current rankings. Compare that to the WCHA, which has two teams inside the top 20 and half of its ranks sitting 50th or lower.
It’s not that the WCHA has gotten weaker, it’s that Atlantic Hockey is simply getting better. It’s a fact that Chris Lerch and I stress almost every year, and it’s proof that the league is pushing forward. They might not get an at-large bid this year, but it’s not as far off as power conference supporters might have you believe.
Players of the Week
Player of the Week: Canisius’ Dylan McLaughlin: McLaughlin had seven points in an undefeated weekend of play for the Griffs. He had four goals and three assists, scoring in both wins over AIC over the weekend and a win over Niagara on Tuesday night.
Defensive Player of the Week: Bentley’s Brett Orr: Despite not wearing #4, a defenseman named Orr is starting to reign supreme in Boston. He had four points over the weekend in the sweep of RIT, all on assists.
Goalie of the Week: Robert Morris’ Dalton Izyk: The senior posted a shutout weekend, including a 6-0 shutout victory on Saturday over the Holy Cross Crusaders. He made just about 40 saves across one game-plus in a split for Colonials.
Rookie of the Week: Bentley’s Jonathan Desbiens: Desbiens’ four-goal weekend included the first Falcon hat trick this season, and his power play goal in the first period on Friday helped elevate the Falcons to the sweep.