April 17, 2012

From NEHJ: Bentley bounces back, but Falcons not satisfied

By Allen Lessels

Bentley’s bounce-back season, powered by sophomore Brett Gensler and his freshman linemates, got the Falcons close. Very close. 

Bentley sophomore Brett Gensler, who has posted 74 points in 73 games in two seasons, was named the winner of the Walter Brown Award as the best American-born player in New England. (SportsPix)

Now coach Ryan Soderquist’s crew wants more.

Bentley rebounded from a ninth-place finish the year before to pull down sixth place in the tighter-than-tight Atlantic Hockey Association standings and then gave RIT quite a run in the league’s quarterfinals.

“We felt we improved a lot this year. We’re still a pretty young team and we came one game away from making it to the championship weekend,” said Soderquist (Stoneham, Mass.). “By the same token, we came away from our last weekend with a sour taste.”

The Falcons knocked off RIT, 4-1, in the first game of the best-of-three quarterfinals in Rochester, N.Y., and roared back from 4-1 down in the second period to take the next night’s game to overtime. And then a second overtime before RIT finally prevailed, 5-4. RIT stopped Bentley, 3-0, in Game 3.

Some of the sour taste stemmed from a couple of months prior.

“In January, we were playing well and we had a great opportunity to get a home-ice spot and we weren’t able to secure it,” Soderquist said. “We were happy with the bounce-back year, but once we readjusted our goals at the halfway point of the season, we were kind of disappointed we didn’t finish as strong as we wanted.”

That said, Bentley finished two points out of second place and one point behind RIT, Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, who all were tied for third.

The race was that close. And the stakes were that high: The four teams that earned first-round byes and then were hosts for the quarterfinals all advanced to Rochester.

The Falcons were not alone in their near-miss and disappointment.

UConn and Holy Cross both made solid runs in the league tournament and came up just short of making it to the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester for the semifinals and title game as well. Both advanced to the semifinals in 2011.

“The three New England teams all had good runs,” UConn coach Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.) said. “All three could have been in Rochester. .… One thing that’s disappointing is I think maybe we improved and we were a much sounder team. But you have to win to get there, which we didn’t do.”

UConn, led by sophomore sniper Cole Schneider and junior goalie Garrett Bartus, took eventual champion Air Force to three games in Colorado Springs and fell in the title game, 4-3.

Holy Cross, after losing home ice on a tiebreaker and having to go to Mercyhurst rather than host the Lakers, also went to three games. The Crusaders lost the finale, 3-1.

“We expect to win the league every year and haven’t won it since RIT and Air Force joined,” Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.) said. “Neither has anybody else. We feel we have the ability as a program to get there and didn’t this year and obviously that’s disappointing. We’ll give it another kick next year. We have a good group coming back. We’ll see what happens.”

All three teams return their starting goalies — Holy Cross has Matt Ginn, who was a freshman; UConn has Bartus; and Bentley has sophomore Branden Komm — and various amounts of firepower.

Bentley has its top seven scorers back, three of whom were sophomores and three more freshmen.

Gensler leads the group with his 23 goals and 27 assists for 50 points. He has 74 points in 73 games through his first two seasons. The freshmen alongside him, Alex Grieve and Brett Switzer, were at 15-19-34 and 14-19-33, respectively.

Gensler struck a blow for Atlantic Hockey, too, when he was named the winner of the Walter Brown Award as the best American-born player in New England by the Gridiron Club of Boston. He’s the first from Atlantic Hockey to take the honors. 

Bentley sophomore Branden Komm is one of the starting goalies returning for the league’s New England schools. (Photo by Richard Orr)

“It was kind of unexpected with all the guys from Boston College and Boston University that get it every year,” Soderquist said. “It shows great respect for the whole league and most importantly shows the growth of the league and its programs. It’s pretty exciting.”

Another outstanding sophomore forward brought the league attention, too.

After breaking UConn’s Division 1 single-season record for goals (23) and points (45), Schneider announced he was leaving school to sign a contract with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and start his pro career with the team’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y.

It’s good for the league in the long run, Marshall said.

“In years to come, we can say to recruits you can come and play in this league and have the opportunity to sign,” he said. “A kid can see if they come and put up the numbers they think they’re capable of putting up, they could have that opportunity. Sometimes we get overshadowed that way by some of the other leagues.”

Of course, Schneider’s decision doesn’t help the next season’s Huskies.

“It’s bittersweet,” Marshall said. “It’s a great opportunity for Cole and he’s worked hard to put himself in a position to do that. Would we like him back for another year? Sure. But it’s good for the league and good for him and we’ll go from there.”

The good news in Storrs is that the Huskies return the next five players off the top of their scoring list, starting with juniors-to-be Brant Harris (18-15-33) and Billy Latta (10-18-28).

They, too, will take another kick at the tightening Atlantic Hockey Association, starting in October.

“I really think the league is dead-even right now across the board,” Soderquist said. “One or two points separate teams from home ice or not home ice. It’s pretty tight. I think we’ve closed the gap quite a bit, and it’s exciting to go into any building on any night and feel you can win. It’s a nice feeling to have. The league’s real strong.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com