Bowling Green’s play was up and down during the second half of the season.
The Falcons appear to be back on track entering the Final Five of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
They completed a sweep of their quarterfinal series against Northern Michigan with a 4-1 win Saturday in the Ice Arena.
The victory was the fourth straight for the Falcons, who are 23-10-5 overall.
BG entered the series after posting a 7-2, 2-1 home sweep of Alabama-Huntsville to finish the regular season March 6-7.
“It’s definitely big,” Falcon freshman forward Brandon Hawkins said. “We’ve gotten together in practice the last couple weeks. We’ve had some hard practices. We’ve been tough on each other and we’ve had some long talks between the players.
“We’ve all been able to come together more as a team. That’s the big part of it.
RECAP: The Falcons were good offensively and defensively during most of their Game 2 win over NMU. They held a 42-20 edge in shots, including a 34-13 margin over the final two periods.
NMU had enough scoring chances to take a 1-0 lead and keep the game interesting, but BG goalie Tommy Burke played well with 19 saves.
“We played pretty well,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said.
COME FROM BEHIND: The Wildcats took a 1-0 lead at 8:55 of the second period when freshman forward Zach Diamantoni scored on a breakaway.
The breakaway came after both BG defensemen were caught stepping up into the play at center ice.
But the Falcons quickly answered, tying the game on Tyler Spezia’s goal just 64 seconds later. BG went ahead for good on Brandon Hawkins’ goal at 14:17.
“It was a big momentum. Tyler’s been playing some good hockey and that was an absolute rocket of a shot,” Hawkins said. “It was a big deal for all of the guys. We came together after that and got it done.”
The Falcons raised their level of play after the Spezia goal. An enthusiastic crowd of 1,915 also helped BG. BG’s students are on spring break this week.
“When you’re playing in front of fans like ours, there was energy in the building the whole night,” Bergeron said. “But after we scored to tie it up real quick, we played off that energy and took our game to the level we were hoping to be at more this weekend.”
The Falcons clinched the win on third-period goals from Hawkins at 13:24 and Brent Tate at 18:52.
CLOSERS: BG played a strong third period. NMU had posted a 3-2 (overtime), 4-3 sweep in the Ice Arena Feb. 20-21 when it rallied from a one-goal deficit in the third period both nights.
“We got it in our head going into the third period saying, we’re going to win this one,” Hawkins said. “We want it more and that’s all it’s going to be.”
The Falcons are 16-3-3 when leading after two periods.
“Our third period was pretty solid,” Bergeron said. “It also showed this group has been there before and that’s the way played in the third. Those older guys have been there before and we acted that way.”
GOALS: The Falcons’ first three goals were impressive.
Spezia scored off a 3 on 2 rush from the left circle in a hard shot, beating NMU’s Michael Doan over the blocker on the short side.
Hawkins’ goal was a laser from the slot after Mark Cooper’s drop pass. Cooper remained in front of the net to screen Doan.
Hawkins’ second goal came on a deflection, three seconds after Cooper won a faceoff in the right circle of the offensive zone. The puck went back to Sean Walker at the right point, and Hawkins had his stick ready for the trip.
GOALTENDING: Burke, starting for the ninth time in the last 11 games, played well in the series. He stopped 57 of 60 shots in the series,
“Tommy Burke played solid all weekend,” Bergeron said.
Burke improved his goals-against average to 2.10 and save percentage to .922.
The single-season BG record for goals-against average is 2.39, set by Wally Charko during the 1978-79 season.
HOT LINE: The line of Hawkins, Cooper and Ben Murphy played well weekend.
Cooper centers the line, with Hawkins on the left wing and Murphy on the right side. Hawkins is a freshman, while Cooper and Murphy and juniors.
“We mesh really well together,” Murphy said, adding he hangs out with Murphy and Cooper as much as anyone on the team away from the rink. “For us to be playing pretty together during the game is just second nature to us.”
The trio was completed by a strong weekend from the line of senior center Dan DeSalvo, freshman left wing Spezia and senior right wing Adam Berkle.
FINAL FIVE: The Falcons will face league regular-season runnerup and fourth-ranked Michigan Tech (28-8-2) in the WCHA Final Five Friday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Faceoff is 5:07 p.m.
Top-ranked and WCHA champion Minnesota State (27-7-3) plays sixth-place Ferris State (18-19-2) in the other semifinal at 8:37 p.m.
The championship game is Saturday night at 7:07 p.m.
The winner receives an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re all pretty pumped up about it,” Hawkins said. “We know we have something special here and we can go a long way if our minds are right. It’s a big deal. You see everyone coming out of the rink with a smile on their face.”
The Falcons advanced to their league semifinals for the third time in the last four seasons. They qualified for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association semifinals in 2012 and the WCHA semifinals last season.
BG was a 4-0 loser to Minnesota State in the WCHA Final Five last season in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The Falcons split at Tech Jan. 16-17, posting a 3-2 win in Game 2 after the Huskies were 4-3 winners in Game 1.
“We’re going to play a team we’ve beaten before this year,” Bergeron said. “I hope we’re going there with a swagger. That’s going to be the conversation. We’re not going there to be a part of it.
“We’re going there with a mind-set to take care what we need to take care of.”
PENALTIES: NMU was penalized six times for 39 minutes in the game’s final 83 seconds.
Mitch Jones received a 10-minute misconduct for throwing a water bottle on the ice from the bench after teammate Luke Eibler was called for interference. Eibler also received a 10-minute misconduct.
Darren Nowick later received a major and a game-disqualification for drilling BG’s Mark Friedman into the boards. The DQ means Nowick, who is a junior, will receive an automatic one-game suspension under NCAA rules. The major and DQ also are subject to review by the league office and could result in an additional suspension for Nowick.
Jones is a senior.
Bergeron said the NMU coaches and several of their older players apologized after the game for the actions of their teammates after the game.
“The referees did a decent job of squashing it and taking care of what they could,” Bergeron said.
LINEUP: The Falcons went with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, instead of the usual 12 and six combination.
Defenseman Mike Sullivan and forward Jakob Reichert joined the lineup in place of forwards Brett D’Andrea and Mitch McLain. McLain was out with injury.
The Falcons also had Walker for the full game after he received a game-misconduct for contact to the head Friday just 3:13 into the game. BG had to play the final 76:19 with just five defensemen.
Dajon Mingo was the seventh defenseman, but has played forward throughout his career.
“I really felt like our (defensemen) were taxed after (Friday),” Bergeron said. “Mike Sullivan was right there in terms of the conversation. He’s played a bunch of hockey. It’s not like he didn’t deserve to play.
“We felt like putting a rested (Walker) and a rested (Sullivan) in with five tired (defensemen) was the right thing.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcon power play was 1 of 11 in the series, including 1 of 6 Saturday.
Tate’s goal came during a 5 on 3 when NMU lost its poise and discipline. BG had two 5 on 3 in the final 83 seconds.
The Falcons didn’t allow NMU a power-play goal in five attempts in the series, including two chances Saturday.
BG still leads the nation in penalty-killing at 89.7 percent.