MANKATO, Minn. — Bowling Green’s still in contention for the regular-season championship in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Falcons played well overall, and showed a tremendous amount of grit and determination Saturday en route to a 3-1 win over Minnesota State to move back within two points of the Mavericks for first place in the league.
Two goals from Mark Cooper, superb goaltending from Chris Nell and an improved defensive effort led the Falcons, who rebounded from a disappointing performance during a 5-1 loss in the series opener just 24 hours earlier.
Stephen Baylis also scored for BG, which shares second place in the WCHA with Michigan Tech.
MSU leads the league with 31 points, followed by BG and Tech with 29, and Ferris State with 24. All three teams have six games remaining, but there are no head-to-head meetings left among the top three teams. But, BG does host Ferris Feb. 27-28.
Had Minnesota State swept the series, it would have left BG in third place in the league. The Falcons would have been six points behind the Mavericks, two points behind second-place Tech, and just one point ahead of fourth-place Ferris State.
“We knew we had to make a statement after last night’s effort,” Cooper said.
The Falcons played an OK game Friday, but still had too many glaring turnovers and mistakes, which helped MSU to its win. But in Game 2, BG never trailed after Cooper opened the scoring with just 1:38 to play in the first period.
The Mavericks tied the game on Dylan Margonari’s power-play goal at 14:31 of the second period, but BG went ahead for good on Cooper’s power-play goal just 5:14 later. Baylis clinched the victory when he scored with 4:37 remaining in the game.
“Coming out and getting the first goal was huge, sticking to our game plan and not worrying about what happened last night,” Cooper said. “We had to live in the moment and play tonight as a new game.”
In addition to the Friday loss, the Falcons were coming off a 4-4 tie and a 4-1 loss to Michigan Tech at home the previous weekend.
“We just had to move on and know we can be a top team in our league, even though the score didn’t show that last night,” Cooper said. “Tonight, we showed we can play with the best in the WCHA.”
Nell finished with 31 saves and played well from start to finish, although 14 of his saves came during the third period.
The Falcons had far fewer turnovers Saturday and defended well. On Friday, MSU scored on three breakaways after Falcon turnovers and the other two goals resulted from coverage miscues by BG.
Even though MSU had 14 shots on goal and 34 total attempted shots in the third period alone, it only had a half dozen quality scoring chances during those 20 minutes. The Falcons also defended well over the last four-plus minutes after MSU pulled goalie Cole Huggins with a two-goal deficit.
“We defended pretty well,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “Minnesota State is a team you’re not ever going to totally shut down. But the (defensive) zone coverage situations, we defended.
“We made that next right play, too,” Bergeron added. “Last night, the last two games, we’ve been winning the puck, and then not making the next right play and turning it right back over after working so hard to get it.”
Minnesota State finished the game with a 31-21 edge in shots on goal and an 83-42 margin in total shots attempted. But the Falcons blocked 27 shots and MSU missed the net on 24 chances.
BG had allowed 13 goals in its last three games entering Saturday.
“We talked a lot about blocking shots and championship teams do block shots,” Cooper said. “That was a focus coming into today, and having good sticks and deflecting passes was huge for us.”
BG took the lead in the first period when Cooper tucked the puck inside the left post from the side of the crease. MSU goalie Cole Huggins fumbled the puck behind the net and Cooper stole it, and then moved to the crease for the goal.
The Falcons played from behind for a large part of the Alaska-Anchorage series and most of Friday’s loss to Minnesota State. BG is 13-3-2 when scoring the game’s first goal, but 3-6-4 when allowing it.
“That makes a bunch out of you physically and mentally,” Bergeron said of playing from behind and scoring the first goal. “To get the first goal was a big deal, and it felt like a big deal on the bench.”
“Coming off of last night, we didn’t think we played badly, but it wasn’t our best game,” Nell said. “To get that first goal was huge, to get that confidence back in us right away and know we can play with these guys.”
The Falcons, ranked 19th nationally, improved to 16-9-6 overall and 12-5-5 in the WCHA. No. 18 Minnesota State is 15-10-5, 13-4-5.
“We played pretty well,” Bergeron said. “It’s nice to see that when we’re focused and doing things properly, we can compete with anybody in our league.”