The Falcons believe even better power-play and penalty-killing units can help them contend for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship.
Last season, BG was fourth in the 10-team league in power-play conversions at 18.9 percent and fifth in penalty-killing at 84.8 percent. The Falcons were fourth in the WCHA in special teams net with a plus-5. The statistic counts power-play and short-handed goals, for and against.
Even though BG’s special teams were improved last season, the units still battled inconsistency. “It’s something we’ve really tried to improve since we’ve been here, and it’s better,” said BG coach Chris Bergeron, who is in his fifth season.
WCHA playoff champion Minnesota State was first in special teams net last season at plus-25, followed regular-season champion Ferris State at plus-8 and Alaska (Fairbanks) at plus-6.
BG and Alaska tied for third in the league standings during the regular season.
“It’s a major part of what we do here,” Bergeron said of the special teams. “The top teams in the country find ways to win games on the special teams on the nights they’re not quite right 5 on 5, and they can help you win games when you’re playing well 5 on 5.
“You usually don’t see teams with great special teams finish in the middle of the pack or below.” The Falcon special teams were effective Saturday in a 7-2 exhibition win over Simon Fraser, but Miami’s power-play and penalty-killing units will offer BG a much better test to open the regular season. BG and Miami, ranked 11th nationally, play Friday in the Ice Arena at 7:07 p.m. and Sunday in Oxford at 5:05 p.m.
The Falcons were 1-of-5 on the power play, and SFU was 1-of-2, but was generally ineffective. SFU’s goal was scored off a rush. “I was encouraged by the way the power play moved the puck around and the penalty-killing shut it down,” Bergeron said.
TEST: The Falcons played well against SFU with a 61-13 edge in shots on goal. But like the special teams, BG’s offense, defense and goaltending will receive a much better indication of where they stand against Miami. “I like the fact we’re getting tested early, Bergeron said. “Every weekend is a test … whether it’s in league or not in league. There’s no such thing as an easy weekend. This weekend is a difficult weekend for us.”
MIAMI TIES: Bergeron played at Miami from 1989-1993. He was an assistant coach at Miami for 10 seasons before taking the BG job. He also helped recruit three current RedHawks during his Miami tenure — Blake Coleman, Cody Murphy and Alex Wideman.
KEY: Bergeron said the key to the Miami series is not turning the puck over. The RedHawks have an outstanding group of forwards. “Their transition game, their speed and skill, we need to do a good job with the puck,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron added the Falcons have to handle adversity well. “We want to be at our best through adverse situations,” Bergeron said, whether the adversity is a bad goal, a bad period or a bad call by the officials.
“I don’t know how that adversity will show itself through the weekend. But we want our older people to make sure they stay fairly consistent with their emotions and focus during the adversity.”
SULLY: BG senior defenseman Mike Sullivan played well against SFU. He had a goal and two assists, and an on-ice rating of plus-4. Sullivan is coming off an inconsistent junior season.
“As a senior, you’d think he’d have a lot of confidence just through his experience and because he’s been here and done it,” Bergeron said. “Confidence for him is key. He should feel confident with the way he played Saturday.”
Sullivan had seven shots against SFU and is known as an offensive defenseman, but he defended well in the exhibition.
“Usually the difference between Michael on his best day and Michael when he’s not at his best is that confidence,” Bergeron said. “Saturday, he seemed to be at the top of his game mentally. We’re pushing him to make sure he’s staying on top of the mental part of things on a daily basis, and he has been.” Connor Kucera, Sullivan’s defense partner and also a senior, played well against SFU. He was a plus-1. “We hope they can keep their level on high, so they can lead the way and the young guys can follow them,” Bergeron said.
MORE GROWTH: BG is hoping for more growth from junior forwards Mark Cooper and Ben Murphy.
Cooper had 14 goals and 10 assists in 39 games last season after totaling nine goals and seven assists in 38 games as a freshman. Murphy also had a good freshman season with six goals and seven assists in 40 games, and raised his totals to 13 goals and eight assists in 38 games last season.
“We want them to make the same jump, which means taking their game from good or very good to great,” Bergeron said. “The difference between good or very good to great is consistency.” Cooper and Murphy skate on the power play. Cooper is one of BG’s assistant captains.
“Mark Cooper should be the best player on the ice every day, practice, games … it doesn’t matter,” Bergeron said. “Ben Murphy, he focuses on confidence. He needs to feel good about what is going on within his game. He should feel good about that.
“They’re both in tip-top shape. They’ve put their time in on the track and in the weight room. You do it, people will follow … do it in practice, and Fridays and Saturdays will follow. They’re both great kids. They’ve been receptive to what we’re talking about and they’re figuring it out at a junior level, and a senior level.”
The two both played well on a line with sophomore Kevin Dufour against SFU. The three combined for a goal and three assists, and 10 shots.
GOALTENDING: The Falcons had good goaltending last season, but Bergeron wants BG’s goaltending to be great this season. All three goalies — junior Tommy Burke, sophomore Tomas Sholl and freshman Chris Nell — will start at least once during the first two weekends. BG visits Alabama-Huntsville Oct. 17-18 to open WCHA play.
“I’m not talking about night and day change. I’m not talking about night and day improvement,” Bergeron said. “Our goaltending’s been good. Good is good, but we think great gets us to where we want to be.”
The Falcons were young in goal last season with Sholl being a freshman and Burke was in his first full season as a No. 1 goalie. “They did a good job,” Bergeron said. “The difference between good and great for us was that one goal, that one play (with the puck) … just cleaning it up a little bit.
“It just seemed to me there were times we needed a save and we didn’t get it. There were times we needed a save and we did get it. We got the results at those times. Over the course of the year, it wasn’t consistent.”
Bergeron likes the depth BG has in goal. “With three goaltenders who can play, we think that will elevate the game of everybody,” Bergeron said. “Nell has fit in nicely. Sholl has made some strides, both mentally and physically. Burke is just a worker. That’s what he does. He improves. He prepares.”
INELIGIBLE: Bergeron said freshman defenseman Braden Pears is ineligible this season. Pears did not meet NCAA entrance requirements. As a non-qualifier, he can’t practice with the team. He’ll be eligible to play next season.
BG TIES: Miami junior Riley Barber is the son of former Falcon star Don Barber. Riley, a 6-foot, 198-pound forward, had 19 goals and 25 assists in 38 games last season. He was a sixth-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in 2012.
Don Barber was a forward at BG from 1984-88, totaling 83 goals and 115 assists in 155 games. He went on to play five seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordqiues and San Jose Sharks.
REBOUND: Though Miami is ranked 11th nationally, it is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2013-14 season. The Red Hawks were 15-20-3 overall and 6-17-1 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference last season, but were second to North Dakota in this season’s NCHC coaches poll.
Miami returns 19 letter winners, and 20 of its 28 players are juniors and seniors. “When you go through a season the way we did, you have to take a step back and evaluate your structure,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi, who is in his 15th season.
“We did that as a team, and the players were a big part of that. Everyone made a commitment to step up their game and put in time off the ice mentally and physically to make sure we are ready to go this year so we can focus on the things that are important for our program, which are daily improvement and being ready for the weekend.”
Barber and senior Austin Czarnik (13 goals, 34 assists last season) give Miami two of college hockey’s top forwards. The RedHawks had two exhibitions last weekend, posting an 11-0 win over Simon Fraser and losing 3-0 to the U.S. Under-18 Team.
INJURIES: The Falcons have no major injuries.