Bowling Green’s play has been inconsistent during the second half of the season.
The Falcons, however, appear ready to put their game back on track for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
They played well offensively and defensively Friday en route to a 7-2 victory over Alabama-Huntsville in the Ice Arena.
They dominated from the start, building a 1-0 lead on Mark Cooper’s goal just 55 seconds into the game.
BG scored twice in each of the first two periods, and ran the lead to 7-0 in the third period.
UAH spoiled BG’s shutout bid by scoring two power-play goals in the final six minutes, the first coming during a 5-on-3 and the second coming on the ensuing 5 on 4.
“It was important to play well and we played well,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said.
The Falcons had lost four of their last five games entering Friday, including a 6-1 loss last Saturday at Alaska-Anchorage, the last-place team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Falcons held a 37-19 edge in shots, with Tommy Burke making 17 saves.
Two of Burke’s saves came on a breakaway in the first period with BG holding a 1-0 lead, and a third point-blank save came late in the period with Falcons leading 2-0.
BG dominated the first five minutes, only to have UAH come back and control the next five minutes. But that’s when Burke made the two breakaway stops.
The Falcons then regained the momentum and never let up. They fashioned a 30-14 shot margin during the first two periods, thanks to good play in the offensive zone and solid defense.
Although UAH didn’t play well and goalie Carmine Guerriero wasn’t sharp, the Falcons still scored their goals with good offensive plays. Twelve of BG’s 18 non-goalies had at least one point in the game.
Brandon Hawkins had two goals and one assist, Cooper scored twice, and Dan DeSalvo added one goal and one assist. Pierre-Luc Mercier and Sean Walker scored the other BG goals.
“We got off to a great start, scoring in the first minute helps,” Bergeron said. “The first five minutes, we were really strong. The next five minutes, we got a little loose with the puck.
“We scored on our opportunities and we had a bunch of opportunities.”
MOTIVATION: The Falcons, who were locked into third place in the WCHA coming into the game, improved to 20-10-5 overall and 16-8-3 in the league.
BG, which was 18-15-6 last season, reached the 20-win mark for the first time since the 1995-96 season when it won 24 times.
The Falcons also remained 14th in the Pairwise Rankings, which mimic the selection criteria for the NCAA playoffs. Sixteen teams make the NCAAs, but upsets in the league playoffs often mean all of the top 16 teams in the Pairwise don’t get in.
At one point this season, the Falcons almost were guaranteed a spot in the NCAAs, earning at least at No. 2 seed with a chance for a No. 1 seed. Now, they’re squarely on the bubble unless they win the WCHA playoff championship.
The league playoff winner earns an automatic NCAA berth.
“It was a big win,” Bergeron said. “We’re playing for a bunch, 20 wins is a bunch for college. After 18 last year, our feeling was we have to get to 20. We’re at 20 with games to go. We have lots to play for, so it was nice to see us play well tonight.”
PLAYOFFS: UAH (8-23-4, 7-19-1) and Lake Superior clinched the final two WCHA playoff berths early Saturday morning, thanks to Anchorage’s 1-0 loss at home to Alaska (Fairbanks).
Entering tonight’s final night of the regular season, only the third-place Falcons and fourth-place Bemidji State are locked into their present position.
The Falcons will host Northern Michigan or Ferris State in a best-of-3 quarterfinal series March 13-14-15. NMU and Ferris are vying for the fifth and sixth seeds.
Minnesota State and Michigan Tech will decide the league championship tonight, while UAH and Lake Superior and are tied for the seventh and eighth seeds.
Alaska Fairbanks is fifth in the league, but is ineligible for all post-season play, the result of penalties for NCAA rules violations announced in November.
DOMINANT: The line of junior Cooper, and seniors Adam Berkle and DeSalvo was effective throughout the game. The three controlled the puck in the offensive zone by playing their best games of the season.
All three were being counted open to be impact scorers this season.
But Cooper entered the game with just two goals and 10 assists in 33 games, DeSalvo had only two goals and 13 assists in 33 games, and Berkle had seven goals and 11 assists in 34 games.
Each was expected to be in the top five on the team in scoring, but none were there going into Friday’s game.
DeSalvo centers the line, Cooper skates on left wing and Berkle plays right wing.
“Playing with those guys, they’re good players and they make smart plays,” Cooper said. “They’re all over the ice. They’re playing their last few games of (their careers), so they’re motivated and it’s fun playing with them.”
HEATING UP: Cooper scored for the third time in the last four games after netting just two goals in the first 31 games. His first two goals came at Alaska (Fairbanks) when he scored each night Nov. 7-8.
He then 21 games without a goal.
“I’ve struggled a little bit this year, but it’s nice to finally have a good game,” Cooper said. “We played relaxed, with some confidence and a little bit of swagger to get that belief back in our dressing room and on the bench.”
The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder led the Falcons with 14 goals last season and was third on the team with 24 points.
“We put them together for a reason, to put Mark in some of those situations and obviously he was tonight,” Bergeron said of the line of Cooper, DeSalvo and Berkle. “He’s somebody we need. He’s certainly capable. It’s nice to have him involved.”
HAWKINS: Hawkins’ goal was his team-leading 14th and the freshman left wing also leads BG with 27 points.
Five of his goals have come on the power play.
PP: The Falcon power play was 2 of 5, scoring a goal for the third time in the last four games. The only game in that span it didn’t score was the loss at Anchorage when it had just one attempt.
“We’ve had some good (offensive) zone time,” Bergeron said. “Our intensity has been better. Our decisions have been better. The results are showing it.”
BG is 5 of 15 in the last four games after going seven straight games without a goal.
PK: BG allowed two power-play goals in nine attempts, the sixth straight game the Falcons have given up at least one power-play goal.
The Falcons are down to 89.1 percent after being above 90 percent most of the season, but they still rank second in the nation.
BG has killed off just 22 of its 30 short-handed situations in those six games.
PENALTIES: The Falcons have taken 17 penalties in the last two games, resulting in 16 power-play attempts for their opponents.
HAFNER: Bergeron announced after the game senior defenseman Rusty Hafner has been suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
“You won’t see him for the rest of the year,” Bergeron said.
After Bergeron’s post-game press conference, BG Assistant Athletics Director for Athletic Communications Jason Knavel confirmed Hafner is no longer a member of the team.
Hafner played in just three games this season, totaling one assist and an on-ice rating of minus-3.
The suspension came earlier in the week, although Bergeron talked about Hafner and the team’s other five seniors during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
LINEUP: Among BG’s healthy scratches for Friday’s game were forward Kevin Dufour, and defensemen Mike Sullivan and Braden Pears
Dufour is second on the team with 13 goals and fifth with 19 points.
NEXT: The Falcons host UAH Saturday night at 7:07.
BG’s five seniors — Berkle, DeSalvo, Connor Kucera, Ted Pletsch and Sullivan — will be honored before the game.