No longer is a spot in Bowling Green’s lineup guaranteed.
Instead, the players have to work hard and play well in practice each day in order to be in the lineup on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Falcons have greatly enhanced their level of talent and depth of talent, allowing them to make lineup changes when players don’t perform well in a game.
The improved depth and the internal competition it creates in practice resulted in a 3-1 victory for the Falcons Saturday over Lake Superior in the Ice Arena.
BG didn’t play well and or display much intensity the previous night in a 3-1 loss to the Lakers. The Falcons opted to sit senior defenseman Mike Sullivan, sophomore forward Pierre-Luc Mercier and freshman forward Jakob Reichert in Game 2.
Joining the lineup were junior defenseman Jose Delgadillo, and freshmen forwards Brett D’Andrea and Ben Greiner.
All three contributed to BG’s win, enabling the sixth-ranked Falcons to improve to 15-5-4 overall and 11-3-2 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
“It really helps the terms of making everyone better,” Delgadillo said of BG’s competition in practice.
Delgadillo has played in just nine games, but 6-foot-2, 206-pounder is tied for fourth on the team in plus-minus with an on-ice rating of plus-5. He’s taken just two penalties, both minors.
“Guys are battling for jobs every day in practice,” Delgadillo said. “It makes individuals work harder and try harder and compete harder which, in turn, makes our team better.
“It makes our team more competitive. No matter who we have on the ice, we’re going to have a competitive team, a relentless team because of the internal competition we have in practice.”
The sitting of Sullivan, Mercier and Reichert marked the second straight weekend BG sat at least one regular.
Mercier has four goals and 12 assists and has joined Dufour on one of BG’s top lines most of the season. Sullivan sat for the first time this season and has been a regular for four seasons. Reichert has two goals and three assists in 22 games.
Mercier and Sullivan have helped BG become the No. 1 penalty-killing team in the nation.
The competition also has been evident in goal where junior Tommy Burke, sophomore Tomas Sholl and freshman Chris Nell continue to battle for the No. 1 job.
“That internal competition has to bring out the best in you as an individual,” said BG coach Chris Bergeron, who is in his fifth season. “They’re all aware of the situation we’re in, from an individual standpoint, a collective standpoint.
“You have to play to your level and do what you do, no matter what or someone else will get that opportunity. It’s not necessarily, are you doing that badly? It’s about what are you doing? What you are bringing to the table? What is your impact on a day in, day out basis?”
The Falcons have 15 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies, although senior forward Ted Pletsch remains out with a foot injury. Making multiple lineup changes also can send a strong message to the team as a whole.
“If your impact is just OK, we’ve got guys who deserve a chance. If your impact is really good, you’ll keep getting rewarded. We find with 20-year-old young guys, if they’re wired right, you’ll see a change.”
“We have (internal competition). It’s going to get better. Next year, we’re going to have more competition. We want to have that depth and that competition at all three positions.”
Delgadillo was solid, He wasn’t on the ice for the Laker goal and helped BG kill off all five Lake Superior power plays.
“Our program is at a place where if you don’t live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself, there’s accountability,” Bergeron said.
“In the past, that accountability has been you come off the power play or you don’t kill penalties,” Bergeron said. “You play less. Now with the depth we have, the accountability is you come out of the lineup.”
There are no guarantees Sullivan, Mercier and Reichert will play this weekend at Bemidji State. Under WCHA rules, teams only allowed to take 22 players on the road. Most teams take 20 skaters and two goalies on the road.
“It’s not a black to white change. It’s this much,” Bergeron said, holding his fingers a half-inch apart in explaining what he wanted from the changes. “But then you give a guy like Ben Greiner a chance, a guy like Brett D’Andrea a chance, they may run away with the opportunity.”
Greiner has played well in practice, Bergeron said, but has played in just six games because of BG’s depth at forward. He has two goals, no penalties and an on-ice rating of plus-3 in six games.
“You may not get it back,” Bergeron said. “That’s the risk you take by doing it your way. By doing it our way and getting to your level, you get rewarded from that.”
Delgadillo is one of the Falcons who battles for playing time every week. After playing three seasons in the United States (Junior) Hockey League, the 21-year-old Milwaukee native has appeared in only 57 out of a possible 104 games at BG.
“Every day you have to be yourself and you have to be willing to be great on a daily basis, like coach says,” Delgadillo said. “That starts with a mentality in practice that you practice just like you would play in a game.
“If you treat practice like a game, you’re going to be that much better, and then Friday and Saturday become just like any other day,” Delgadillo added.
Delgadillo and the others who aren’t regulars must be good in practice every day.
“As long as you have the intensity level, as long as you have the compete level and as long as you have the battle level, you know you left everything on the ice that day,” Delgadillo said.
“If you put too much pressure on yourself on worry about it, you’re going to grip the stick tighter, and that’s when mistakes happen. There’s a certain pressure, but you need to learn to deal with it and not let it bother you.”
Players learn of the lineup for Friday’s game after Thursday’s practice. Saturday’s lineup is announced that morning. Players often have an idea of their standing, based on who their linemates or defense partner is during practice.
The players who don’t play are dressed in suits and watch the game in the stands.
“It’s frustrating not to be in the lineup, to be on the outside looking in,” said Delgadillo, who has a 3.3 grade-point average in exercise science. “It’s hard because you only get four years, 36 games a year, plus playoffs, and you want to be in there every night.
“It’s tough to come into the locker room with a smile on your face when you know you’re not going to play. But at the same time, it’s a sport I love and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I enjoy coming to the rink with these guys every day.”