Alex Grieve and his Bentley University hockey teammates were not happy with the way last season ended. Not happy at all.
“Any time you go down the stretch and you go 1-10, or whatever our record was, and you lose your first two games in the playoffs … I wasn’t the only guy,” Grieve said. “We took it extremely to heart. We definitely all had to take a long, long look in the mirror.”
|After a difficult finish to a promising season, Bentley's Alex Grieve wanted more this year. (SportsPix)|
The Falcons took a couple of weeks off from each other, and they looked, and they saw, and they came back together, and it didn’t take long to see a change in the team’s attitude, a change in the approach, Grieve said.
Bentley was a very young team in 2012-13 and was coming off a nice season, so it had very high hopes. Those hopes, thanks in large part to a team-wide defensive effort that didn’t hold up its end of the deal, faded fast in an ugly February that led to a short and painful March.
The Falcons lost three seniors off last year’s team, so most everybody was coming back, and they still had hopes of taking Bentley hockey to new heights. They needed to change some things if that were going to happen. And they did.
Grieve, a junior and assistant captain along with senior captain Justin Rickford and senior assistant captain Justin Breton (Fitchburg, Mass.), helped lead the way.
“It’s been a better commitment from everyone and we have a better team aura, a better team attitude,” Grieve said. “You could see the change happening in the spring. Everyone was so committed to getting better even though the season was six months away. It was better right off the bat. You could see guys coming together to work out; you could tell we were going to be a stronger team.”
This season got off to a rough start record-wise, but that was largely because of Bentley’s tough schedule. The Falcons won only one of their first seven games, but coach Ryan Soderquist (Stoneham, Mass.) liked the way the team was playing.
“Quite frankly, we were playing such a hard schedule at the beginning of the year, it helped us play the right way,” the coach said. “We were backchecking with a purpose and doing all the little things you need to do defensively.”
The one win came in a season-opening split at Nebraska-Omaha, and the Falcons lost one-goal games at Maine and Quinnipiac and lost by two with an empty-net goal at Merrimack. They were 2-7-0 when they went to Storrs on Nov. 15 and senior goalie Branden Komm tossed a 30-save shutout at Connecticut. That started a nine-game unbeaten streak of 7-0-2 that included a 4-1 win at Boston University on Dec. 14.
The Falcons lost a 5-3 game at home to Niagara on Jan. 4 and then turned around and swept RIT and took three points from Canisius the next two weekends.
And here’s the thing about that loss to Niagara. In the nine games before it, the Falcons had not allowed more than two goals in any game. They started a similar streak right after it. That team defense is what the coach is talking about. It was the crux of the problem last season.
“Our guys knew at the end of the year last our defensive commitment as a team is what let us down,” Soderquist said. “I firmly believe we started relying on goal scoring to win games, and we certainly learned in January and February that team defense wins games. We started to get a little ahead of ourselves and started winning games with offense and got confident and things were coming easy. Before you know it, it’s too late to learn defense again.”
Defense has been the emphasis since Day 1 this season.
“We’re playing a more well-rounded game,” Grieve said. “We’re playing a 60-minute game and controlling the pace and getting contributions from a lot of guys, and our power play has been extremely successful. But a power play is going to dry up at times, and we have to find a way to make sure we’re scoring goals five-on-five.”
The Falcons had it going at both ends of the ice as February approached. They were displaying the offensive firepower they’ve been known for in recent years. Senior Brett Gensler led the league in points and Grieve with 16 goals and Gensler and sophomore Andrew Gladiuk with 15 each were at the top of the list in that category.
Junior defenseman Steve Weinstein quarterbacks the power play that led the league at almost 28 percent and led the nation’s defensemen in scoring with a goal and 28 assists.
After last year’s late drought left the Falcons at 3.09 goals for the season, they were at 3.43 in late January, just a tick behind Mercyhurst. Most of that was expected.
“Coming into this year, we were pretty confident we returned good goal scoring,” Soderquist said. “The question was whether or not we’d be committed to team defense. We’ve done that. Our defense and goaltending have been great.”
Bentley was allowing 2.40 goals a game in late January, down nearly a goal from last year’s 3.31. Komm had a .929 save percentage and league’s best goals-against average of 2.33.
The challenge is sustaining it as things tighten up in the stretch run. Soderquist raves about the job his leaders have done with the team, especially the way Grieve stepped up after last season and changed his approach to conditioning, nutrition and lifestyle to improve his game and assist the team.
The team has a bunch of leaders, Grieve said, and everyone learned from last year. “That was a hard time, and all the lessons learned helped us in the long run and are paying dividends now,” he said.
The Falcons are looking to pick up where they left off when they got sidetracked late last year. Two years ago, they finished 16-16-8, only the second time they have been at .500 or better in 14 years in Division 1.
Grieve, who lives in Calgary, came to Bentley from the Westside Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League in part to be involved in the upswing. “When I came to visit, I fell in love with the program and where it was headed and what the school had to offer,” he said.
This year, the Falcons hope they’re headed to a long postseason run.