Last Friday night’s game felt like a dream come true for Bentley senior Jonathan Desbiens.
His Falcons buzzed through the Army West Point defense in the first period, with his stick benefiting from being in the right place at the right time. He scored twice in the first five minutes of the game, and as Bentley staked to a 3-0 lead in the second period, he jumped on the ice with an enthusiasm to collect a potential third strike.
He probably didn’t think it would go down the way that it actually happened.
With just over two minutes remaining, he took a shot from the left wing faceoff circle. It was a wide-angle shot, one that maybe could have bounced off of someone into an advantageous spot for his teammates. Instead, the puck glanced off an Army defender’s stick and redirected right into the Black Knights goal.
The chapeau celebration forced a smile from everyone on his bench. It was the first Bentley hat trick in over two years and the third of the senior’s career.
More than that, it represented one of the team’s most complete efforts of the entire season. A 4-1 victory, it followed consecutive sweeps over Mercyhurst and Niagara, shooting the Falcons onto a trajectory into Atlantic Hockey’s upper tier.
“I thought our start was really strong (against Army),” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said after the game. “(Desbiens) got a couple of big ones early. That’s what we need down the stretch. We need senior leaders. We needed guys to be ready to play, and I thought that carried us through.”
It has the Falcons potentially peaking at the right time of the season.
Bentley’s only sweep win prior to its late January trip to Mercyhurst came over Thanksgiving break against Holy Cross. Those wins improved the team to 4-7 in league play after a sluggish start saw it swept on three separate occasions, including twice by Robert Morris.
A split with Mercyhurst and a win over Army West Point helped, but Bentley always seemed to be a case study in how a team could alternate between hot and cold nights over a single weekend. In late December, Bentley went to Sacred Heart and lost, 4-0, but turned on its afterburners the next night for a 3-2 victory in which it never trailed.
There was always potential, but the nadir came in mid-January when the Falcons squandered two consecutive three-goal leads against Canisius en route to two points after losing a shootout and a 3-on-3 overtime. The next weekend against AIC, Bentley lost 4-1.
Something seemed to change, though, in the Saturday game against the Yellow Jackets.
Bentley lost 2-1, but it fought arguably the league’s best team through a 60-minute battle. Two weeks later against Niagara, the Falcons won their first overtime league game of the year, earning all three points, before winning 4-2 after the Purple Eagles nearly rallied from a three-goal deficit.
It made the Army West Point game gratifying.
The Black Knights scored almost immediately after Desbiens’ goal, pulling within three as the period expired. But instead of surrendering the lead in the last period, the Falcons clamped down on their opponent and played a complete, 200-foot, team game.
It moved Bentley, which very quietly remained within striking distance of a first round bye, back into fifth place heading into a weekend series at RIT. The games will match two of the hottest teams in the league against one another, since the Tigers are 4-1-1 since the end of January and will be playing their first home game since a Jan. 25 tilt against Canisius.
“I thought we did a really good job (in the third period),” Soderquist said. “We managed it well. We’re learning how to win as a team and how to keep it simple. That points back to our leadership. Guys are playing for each other, and now we’re coming together at the right time.”
Tuesday night provided a titan matchup on the Atlantic Hockey schedule when AIC hosted Sacred Heart.
The two teams, tied for first place entering the night, provided a late-season cross-section for programs looking to supplant one another atop the conference standings. They also provided the first glimpse into a bye-clinching scenario for the 2020 postseason.
The wild game, with its five first period goals, saw the Yellow Jackets pull away for a victory over the Pioneers. While that means AIC returned to first place for the first time this season after winning both the regular season and the postseason tournament championships last season, it also put clinching scenarios into play heading into this weekend.
As usual, fifth place carries the most volatility. Bentley is five points behind RIT for third place with games against the Tigers this weekend, so the Falcons are in great position to earn a track to a first round bye and second round home series with a sweep win. But it’s also only six points back to Canisius and Holy Cross, which means a bad weekend could drop the Falcons to the Atlantic Hockey home-ice bubble.
The volatility comes from Bentley’s games in hand; the Falcons hold the season’s late bye, so unless they essentially need to sweep in order to avoid needing help on the season’s last weekend.
The parity in this league is always severe around this time of year, and the new three-point format is going to increase the interest factor. Everyone is still jockeying for advantageous seeds, though it seems foregone to give one of the top four to AIC and another to Sacred Heart unless either team experiences a New York Mets-like collapse.
I’m just hoping a shootout doesn’t determine any positioning.
The upcoming schedule
Normally, I’d highlight a couple of series at the end of this week, but it’s safe to call every weekend critical heading into Friday:
Robert Morris at Holy Cross: The Colonials are setting the pace for the No. 5 seed even though they’re behind Bentley in the standings. Six points in Massachusetts would give RMU an inside track to the No. 5 seed, and it would all but ensure Holy Cross, a team that is very good at home, goes on the road in the first round. A loss would depend on what happens to Bentley, since Air Force is playing Colorado College in non-league games this weekend.
Army West Point at Mercyhurst: The Black Knights are in need of some good karma after losing five of their last six games. None of those losses submarined the team’s chances at a bye, and it’s still more than likely going to take a lot to knock it out of a first round bye. But at the same time, there’s no reason to play with fire, especially with three teams potentially charging into the top four.
Bentley at RIT: This is probably the biggest series of the weekend. A Bentley sweep doesn’t mean the Falcons have an inside track to a first round bye, but it helps put pressure on Air Force, Robert Morris and – you guessed it – RIT. An RIT sweep ends that threat altogether or at least makes it that much more difficult since the Falcons would need some big help. Combining the stakes with how hot these teams have been gives the Rubin/Lerch matchup headline status for the first time since the 2012 playoffs – before I was at USCHO and a weekend during which I think I called Chris untalented (I’m still really sorry about that).
AIC at Canisius: Traveling to Buffalo on short notice is never easy, but AIC probably has the best position for any team. Canisius, meanwhile, has a really good shot at a bye if it wins out but is more likely to get into the first round home series if it keeps winning.
Niagara at Sacred Heart: Niagara has probably the toughest schedule remaining, which is why it’s imperative to keep Canisius and Sacred Heart in its rear view mirror as long as possible. Things might get a little bit easier after this weekend, which is to say that at least three of the last four games are at home. Still, Sacred Heart, RIT, and Robert Morris? If the Purple Eagles can pick off wins, they very much control their own destiny.