Easy part is over for Bentley Generals
BENTLEY — The Bentley Generals have completed the first leg of their journey, but there is no time to unpack and relax.
The Generals, who clinched first place in the Chinook Hockey League some time ago, put the wraps on their regular-season schedule Sunday with a 6-3 win over the visiting Innisfail Eagles.
The two clubs get right back at it tonight, with the 15-1-0-0 Generals hosting the Eagles at 8:30 p.m. in the first game of a best-of-three league semifinal. Innisfail finished third in the CHL with an 8-7-0-1 slate.
“A number of us have been through this grind before and you can say what you want about the regular season in the Chinook Hockey League, but if we’re limping into the playoffs we’re not putting our best foot forward,” said Generals veteran forward and captain Sean Robertson, following Sunday’s regular-season capper.
“We have a bunch of goals and this was the first one. That’s all it is and I guess the easy part is over now.”
Indeed, from here on the games get more intense with more on the line each time out. The Generals are hosting the Allan Cup tournament — the Canadian senior AAA championship — April 15-20 at the Red Deer Arena and they want to go in through the front door, as Alberta champions.
Following the CHL playoffs, Bentley will hook up with the Sylvan Lake Admirals in a provincial AAA series scheduled from Feb. 15 to March 10, with the winner taking on either the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs or Stony Plain Eagles in the Alberta final.
Clearly, the Generals are up to the challenges that lie ahead. A nearly perfect season to date is proof of that.
“It’s been great. There were a lot of questions going into the season after everything that happened here, and that was to be expected,” said first-year head coach Brandin Cote, in reference to the off-season dismissal of long-time bench boss Brian Sutter.
“But again, I was confident in the plan that our coaching staff put in place. We got the guys to buy in. We have a great group of players and they’ve done a great job of getting better every week, and that’s all we can ask.
“We’ve set ourselves up well for the homestretch here, for the playoffs. It’s going to be a long, but fun two months and it’s going to be exciting. We’re heading in the right direction for sure.”
The Generals racked up 94 goals during the winter while allowing only 31, giving them a differential of plus-63.
Fort Saskatchewan finished second in the league with a 9-7-0-0 record and were also runner-up in goal differential at plus-one.
Despite their ongoing dominance, maintaining their focus was not a problem for the perennial Allan Cup contenders and 2009 national champions.
“We’ve just tried to hold the guys accountable and they’ve held themselves accountable,” said Cote, who is assisted behind the Bentley bench by Ryan Tobler and Bob Rutz and also has the services of goaltending instructor Andy Nowicki. “We only play once or twice a week so when they come, they come to play.
“Like any team, we go through some adversity within games but we don’t panic. A lot of that has to do with the levels these guys have played at and the experience that they have. They know how to bounce back. We, as a coaching staff, try to focus on preparing them the best we can and so far it has worked out really well.”
Added Robertson: “I give credit to our coaches. They haven’t let complacency slide in, they’ve kept that out. I give credit to everyone in the room for holding their composure and trying to get better every day. We have a lot of character this year.”
The Generals are also blessed with a load of talent, thanks to general manager Jeff McInnis who this season added defenceman Matt Kinch and forwards Kyle Sheen, Chris Neiszner, Matt Stefanishion, Travis Dunstall, Dustin Moore, Randall Gelech and Geordie Wudrick.
Kinch, a 32-year-old Red Deer native, was a WHL star with the Calgary Hitmen, was selected by Buffalo in the 1999 NHL entry draft and since 2001 played mostly in the AHL and Europe prior to joining the Gens.
Sheen skated with Kelowna and Kamloops in the WHL and played at the minor pro level until 2009, while Gelech and Wudrick are Kelowna Rockets grads. Wudrick, a 22-year-old, six-foot-four, 214-pound winger, scored 43 goals in 2010-11 and Gelech, 28, had 30 goals in ‘03-04.
Stefanishion, a six-foot-three, 225-pound winger, played five seasons of pro hockey — including 15 games in the AHL — Dunstall has five years of junior A and major junior seasoning and three years of minor pro experience, and Red Deer native Moore, who was with the Rebels in 2006-07, is a former University of Lethbridge Pronghorns captain and Canada West all-star.
Toss in the likes of veteran forwards Curtis Austring, Scott Doucet, Dustin Sproat, Travis Brigley and Tyler Haarstad and returning rearguards Joe Vandermeer, Don Morrison, Jason Lundmark and Brett Thurston, and the Generals are stacked.
“Our depth is probably our biggest strength, from our goalie on out,” said Cote. “We have four lines we can roll and when you’re doing that consistently, not matter what level it is . . . when you’re throwing line after line at a team it’s hard to stay with it for a full 60 minutes. We’re going to continue to do that, for sure.”
Among regular starting netminders, Travis Yonkman posted the CHL’s best numbers this season with a 1.87 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. Jase Weslosky recently joined the Generals as an affiliate and recorded a 1.00 GAA and .964 save percentage in two appearances.
“Travis is solid, plus we have Jase who played with Horse Lake (Chiefs) last year,” said Cote. “We’re happy with where we are in goal and we have a lot of experience on defence. Up front, we have skill, we can work, we have speed and we play physical.”
Neiszner, who won the CHL scoring title with 27 points (14g,13a), wasn’t totally comfortable with the notion of pulling on a Generals jersey last fall.
“I didn’t know what to expect, getting back into it after two years off,” said the 28-year-old, who played four seasons with the Red Deer Rebels, skated in the ECHL, AHL and in France for a total of five years and then served as a Rebels assistant coach for two winters.
“But it’s been awesome. We have a great group of guys here and it’s been a lot of fun.”
As Neiszner noted, the Generals didn’t miss a beat all winter despite adding a player here, a player there.
“We’ve added some pieces during the year but I think they’ve complemented everyone well,” he said. “That’s a big part of our success — that we have a group that complements each other. Look through our lineup and anyone can play in any situation.”
Capturing the CHL scoring crown was satisfying, Neiszner admitted, but nothing would top winning an Allan Cup.
“It (scoring title) is nice but at the end of the day our record as a team is the most important thing,” he said. “We had a great regular season and now we have to build off that.
“We’ve built towards the Allan Cup throughout the year. We’re no different than any other team in that we want to get better every night.”
Robertson was a member of the 2009 Allan Cup champion Generals and feels that the current edition might be superior to any of the Bentley teams before or since in at least one department.
“My overall take is that the character we have in the room is second to none,” said the team captain. “That speaks volumes about Jeff (McInnis) doing his homework and bringing in guys who don’t just want to be here, but they want to win and they want to contribute. They’re willing to do whatever they’re asked to do.
“Senior hockey has come a long way. I remember when playing senior hockey was more of a right than a priviledge. Now it’s a priviledge, not a right.”