The next chapter of the Bentley-Holy Cross rivalry will be written when the teams open a home-and-home series Friday night in Worcester.
Holy Cross, off to its best start in seven years, is tied for second in Atlantic Hockey play (8-5-2) and Bentley is tied for fourth (8-6-1), 1 point behind the Crusaders.
Both squads are excited about the matchup.
“It’s obviously our closest opponent and we’ve been pretty tight in the standings the last couple of years,’’ said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “We’ve had some great battles. It seems like every time we play, we split on the weekend. It’s been a very intense rivalry and it’s really been picking up in the last two or three seasons.’’
Bentley has won four of six games in the second half and Soderquist is happy with what he’s seen.
“Since Christmas break, we’ve been playing a more defensive style of hockey and I think it’s helped us in the win-loss column,’’ he said. “We’ve had some growing pains on the defensive side, which we knew we were going to have. We’ve pretty much had three freshman defensemen in the lineup every night. They’ve grown and they’ve had a great first half in terms of development. They’ve risen to the occasion, they have really stepped up their game since [the break].’’
The Falcons have a standout in junior forward Brett Gensler, who is tied for fifth in the nation with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists in 21 games).
“He had some big nights in the second half of last year where he was having some four-point nights and three-point nights,’’ said Soderquist. “We wanted him to come in this year and get one or two points and be consistent in [his] game and worry about shift to shift. He took it to heart. It started with the off-ice training. He knew he had to [build] more strength. I think that carried into the fall and beginning of the season.’’
Rookie center Andrew Gladiuk, who has four game-winning goals and is tied for second on the team with 22 points, has helped Bentley become the No. 2 offense in the country with 3.71 goals per game, up from 2.85 last season.
“We knew he could be a first- or second-line center and would be a power-play guy,’’ said Soderquist. “To have 12 goals and 22 points overall in 21 games as a freshman is a pretty good start.’’
Gensler and Gladiuk are a force when on the same power-play unit.
Junior goaltender Branden Komm (3.11 goals-against average) has been steady after struggling early in the season.
“Since Christmas break, he’s been phenomenal,’’ said Soderquist. “He has been playing really well.’’
Coach Paul Pearl’s Crusaders have started the second semester with a 3-4 mark but the team faced several ranked teams during that span — one against Yale, two at North Dakota, and two against league-leading Niagara.
“I think we’ve been playing great since Christmas,’’ said Pearl.
One reason is balanced scoring, with nine players having more than 10 points.
“I think we have a lot of good players,’’ said Pearl. “I don’t know that we have any potential All-Americans or guys who are Gensler’s ilk, but we have a lot of good players and they’ve been able to spread the scoring around. We have 11 freshmen on the roster and we play either eight or nine every night. We’ve got kind of a funny mix of a team.’’
The leader on defense is senior Evan Zych, who is the top scorer among blue liners with 13 points, all assists. His first three years he battled injuries.
“He’s had as much on him as anybody on the team this year,’’ said Pearl. “He’s a senior defenseman on a corps that is usually rolling out four freshmen out of the six. He’s always been a good player. This year he’s getting a chance to show it because he’s been able to stay in the lineup.’’
Senior forward Kyle Fletcher, who had a serious hand injury last season, has a team-best 21 points in 22 games.
“He scores, obviously, but he’s a very good faceoff guy and having him back has been invaluable,’’ said Pearl.
Goaltender Matt Ginn is solid with a 2.93 GAA and .911 save percentage.
“He’s been excellent,’’ said Pearl. “We’ve had a tough run here [in terms of difficult opponents] and you have to have a good goalie and he’s been very stellar.’’
Pearl said he feels confident in how his team has handled the iron of its schedule.
“We knew this would be a bear of a stretch,’’ said Pearl. “If we can just keep playing consistently well, it’s not always going to equal wins but it bodes well for us being a really good playoff team.
“I think we’ve made great strides. We’re still searching for [an identity] a little bit. As we point toward the month of February, this weekend against a really good opponent, these are the types of measuring sticks that will just make us better.’’
Whatever happens this weekend will just add to the rivalry.
“More recently because of the competitiveness and how close we are and how often we’ve played them in games that mean a lot, I think these guys have become really good rivals,” said Pearl. “Our guys are definitely looking forward to the weekend.’’
Both teams are disciplined. Holy Cross ranks second in the nation in averaging just 9.18 penalty minutes per game, and Bentley is third with 9.33.
Bobcats riding high
No. 2 Quinnipiac (18-3-3) entered a nine-day break with the highest ranking in program history and the nation’s longest unbeaten streak (15-0-2). The Bobcats next play on Feb. 1 at Brown, the first of four straight on the road. The Bobcats have the second-best penalty killing percentage in the nation (91.2) but they’ve also had a lot of practice. They are the third-most penalized team with 16.33 PIM per game . . . Boston University junior defenseman Garrett Noonan will sit out a weekend’s home-and-home series against Providence. Noonan was ejected from Saturday’s loss to UMass-Lowell for spearing goaltender Doug Carr and given a disqualification, which carries an automatic one-game suspension. Hockey East tacked on an additional one game. Noonan will be eligible to return on Feb. 1 at UMass . . . No. 4 New Hampshire heads into a weekend series against Merrimack as the nation’s top penalty killing team. The Wildcats have killed off 64 of 69 power plays (92.8 percent) . . . No. 15 UMass-Lowell puts its nine-game winning streak on the line this weekend against Northeastern.