This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Bentley players ‘excited to put the jersey on’ as Falcons finally take the ice in ’20-21

Bentley goalie Nicholas Grabko is 2-4-0 for the Falcons with a 2.53 GAA and a .903 save percentage (photo: Bentley Athletics).

The build-up to Bentley’s Tuesday night game against Holy Cross hit differently in the Falcons’ locker room.

It was a rivalry game, but the opponent didn’t matter to Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist, his assistant coaches, or his players.

The Crusaders held two overtime wins from the first half of the year, but nobody bothered to talk about old film. Bentley sat in ninth place entering the game and could pass into eighth place with the percentage points from a win, but there wasn’t any premature playoff discussion.

The palpable anticipation was the result of something altogether different. Bentley hadn’t played a game in 38 days and barely practiced as a full team in the days leading up to the game. It was on its way back from a COVID-induced pause, and on Tuesday night, the Falcons were finally suiting back up.

It wound up being so much more.

Two goals by Jakov Novak in the first six minutes paced Bentley’s return to the sheet in a 5-2 victory over its long-time nemesis in the first game in over a month.

“I thought it was great just to get on the ice,” Soderquist said. “Our guys battled through a lot over the past (month) since our last game. The ability to come out sharp, I was really impressed with our group and the way they battled through adversity over the last couple of weeks. They only had a few days of practice as a team, but I thought our first period was our best period. We came out ready and had good jump.

“I was really, really, really proud of our guys and their effort that they had.”

The entire effort carried Bentley’s trademark, but the blue-collar barrage hit the Holy Cross net early and often.

The Falcons peppered goalie Erik Gordon from the start of the game and worked their way onto his doorstop, behind the Crusaders’ defense. Both of their first period goals were a yeoman’s effort, the kind of goal earned on the second and third opportunity even though they found the back of the net from Novak’s stick.

It continued in the second period when Brendan Walkom scored after consecutive icing calls prevented Holy Cross from substituting after a long shift. Soderquist sent a fresh line onto the ice against a tired group of Crusaders, and an ensuing faceoff win found Walkom for his first of the season.

In the third period, defenseman Luke Orysiuk launched a slap shot over the net but received a second chance on the power play. His vision deke opened up a second opportunity for a snapped shot off the crossbar, and Matt Gosiewski followed with a one-timer touch into the net about a minute later.

“I thought we hit the ice with energy,” Soderquist said. “Guys were excited to put the jersey on and get out there to play. They had a ton of energy from the drop of the puck. Goals are momentum and give energy, but I can tell that the excitement in the locker room over the course of the past couple of days, knowing that we were going to drop the puck, the guys were just excited to get out there and play.”

It was a resounding moment for a team that watched its holiday break effectively reboot its entire season. Bentley’s two losses to AIC were solid college hockey games, but they preceded a positive COVID-19 test result following Christmas break.

The pandemic outbreak forced the team to postpone its non-conference games against Long Island University and subsequent league rematches against the Yellow Jackets. Three games against Sacred Heart also fell off the schedule before the team finally stepped on the ice this past weekend.

A 1-5-0 record only compounded the situation with two overtime losses to Holy Cross, but the win jumped the team into eighth place with a .381 winning percentage. It put the Falcons right on the heels of Sacred Heart with two games scheduled against Air Force this weekend and a number of upcoming games against the Pioneers likely on the horizon.

That’s cause for optimism, but a greater reality was that the team was just happy to skate against an opponent. It played carefree hockey and only tired towards the end of a game where it offered 60 minutes of full effort.

That was enough for Soderquist on Tuesday night as the steam engine of one of the league’s preseason favorites simply restarted.

“I thought our defense did a really nice job,” Soderquist said, “and I thought our guys did a good job retrieving (plays). They took some hits to make some plays. Down the stretch, the last 10 or 12 minutes, we were fatigued a bit, and it showed, but that’s to be expected with that long of a break. In overall terms of team effort, I was really happy.”

Connect Four

Bentley is far from the only program enduring a COVID-19 stoppage this season, but Atlantic Hockey seemingly endured some big punches over the past month when half of the teams in the league paused or endured postponements.

It was a situation that exacerbated the conference’s already-unbalanced schedule, and it effectively split the league into distinct groupings of teams with or without games played. Those teams ultimately became noticeable next to one another in the points percentage-based standings and forced the conference into a more creative situation to ensure competitive fairness amidst a decimated month.

Atlantic Hockey announced this week that it was effectively blowing away its schedule over the next five weeks in order to reschedule teams into at least four games against pod opponents. The entire schedule was erased in favor of a week-to-week format under constant evaluation. The goal was to change the slate from five games to four games against opponents while trying to achieve as much equality as possible.

By default, that means teams like AIC and Robert Morris will likely play less games in comparison to teams like Bentley, Canisius and Sacred Heart. Certain matchups like AIC-Army West Point and RMU-Niagara will likely meet for a fifth time but will ramp down in favor of games between Niagara and Canisius. Sacred Heart, which played AIC for the first time on Tuesday night, will likely gain more games against Bentley.

Air Force remains the lone exception, but the Falcons’ scheduled games will force RIT and Canisius into a unique situation against one another. Both are scheduled to travel to Air Force at the end of next month, but travel quarantine protocols will necessitate three games only between the Golden Griffins and Tigers.

The playoffs are still expected to have 11 teams in a standard format as any other year.

Still swimming

Blowing the schedule apart effectively left Long Island University on the outside looking in after the utopian preseason guaranteed the Sharks two games against every league opponent. They opened the season with road splits against Holy Cross and RIT and were competitive in a game against American International, but the rush to play league games started costing them games shortly after the first of the year.

As a result, LIU played two games last week against Liberty’s ACHA team and earned a split after rallying from an opening night defeat at the LaHaye Ice Center on Friday. The Flames’ win, their first since their opening-night win over NC State, elevated their overall record to .500 at 2-2-0 before the Sharks dropped them on Saturday with a 4-0 win.

It created a natural conversation about college hockey expansion and focused a small spotlight right back on the Sharks. Liberty hosted the games at its on-campus arena, but the Sharks defeated a defending ACHA D-I league champion in its first year as an NCAA program without a preceding club team.

That’s a reasonably big deal and adds a layer to the Sharks’ public case for inclusion in Atlantic Hockey. The league isn’t going to discuss expansion until its spring meetings, but LIU, which still hasn’t hosted a game, is making a strong argument for the way it’s conducted business in its first year.

That said, Alabama-Huntsville is also reportedly expressing interest, and there’s no pressure on the AHA to readily include a 12th team.