Bowling Green’s inconsistency reared its ugly head again Friday night in the Ice Arena.
The Falcons started well, but Miami came back to dominate the final two periods en route to a 4-1 nonleague victory.
Miami scored twice in each of the last two periods to improve to 12-13-3 overall after BG opened the scoring on Brent Tate’s deflection goal at 11:42 of the first period. The Falcons fell to 16-10-6 overall, including a 5-7-1 record since Christmas.
The RedHawks finished with a 49-22 advantage in shots on goal, but the outstanding goaltending of Chris Nell prevented the Falcons from easily losing by a much wider margin.
Nell was coming off an excellent 31-save outing Saturday in a 3-1 win at Western Collegiate Hockey Association leader and 17th-ranked Minnesota State.
“He played very well, “ BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “(Nell) played like he did last Saturday, probably like he did at times early in the year and deserved way better than that. The rest of us got exactly what we deserved.”
Nell’s goaltending at Minnesota State was part of a solid effort by the Falcons, who were 5-1 losers to the Mavericks in the series opener.
BG has been a rollercoaster all season, struggling to find a level of consistency from game to game. But Nell said the inconsistency begins in practice.
“Every day in practice, at times, we’re not right,” Nell said. “It kind of carries over to games. I’ve been there, too, a little bit the last couple months; maybe my practice habits haven’t been the best. Last weekend, we had the same thing happen except it was a two-game weekend.
“We’ve been taking too many days for granted,” Nell added. “It seems like it’s a long season, but the games go by fast.”
Bergeron also said the inconsistency in games is the result of inconsistency during practice.
“It’s every day,” Bergeron said. “It isn’t about games for us. It’s every day. One day there’s focus and purpose to practice, and intensity. The next day, there isn’t. I can’t explain it.”
When asked if the lack of consistency falls on the team’s leadership group, Bergeron said: “No, it falls on me. That falls on me. I’m doing everything in my power to make it better, which, ultimately, I don’t have a whole lot of power in that. That comes down to the players. But I don’t think it falls on them. It falls on me, and then I’ll go to them and try to talk to them about how important it is they are the lead on a daily basis, so on and so forth. It’s not easy.”
Tate and forward Mark Cooper were the only BG seniors to play against Miami, and only four others were juniors. The juniors were forwards Pierre-Luc Mercier, Matt Pohlkamp and Kevin Dufour, and defenseman Sean Walker. Dufour was back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the win at Minnesota State.
The rest of the lineup consisted of seven freshmen and six sophomores.
“I know they’re trying as hard as they can, but it hasn’t been good enough from a leadership perspective to help with consistency,” Bergeron said.
STAR OF THE GAME: Nell easily was the best player in the game. The sophomore faced at least 14 shots in each period and didn’t have much of a chance on any of the three goals he allowed. Many of the saves he made came against quality scoring chances.
Miami’s final goal with 1:47 remaining was into an empty net with Nell on the bench for the sixth attacker.
Nell, as is often the case, made difficult saves look routine and he remained poised and in control, even though the team wasn’t playing well around him.
The RedHawks made life difficult on the 6-foot-3, 184-pounder by putting heavy traffic around the net. But Nell fought through the bodies to find the puck.
“That was probably my best game,” Nell said. “When I’m tracking the puck and out in front of the play, being aggressive and just being smart with what I’m doing, that’s when I’m playing my best. Tonight, that’s what was happening.”
Nell’s 45 saves were a career high, bettering his previous best of 39 Nov. 13 in a 2-0 loss at No. 14 Michigan Tech. The 45 saves were the most by a Falcon goalie since Andrew Hammond stopped 55 shots in a 3-2 loss in double-overtime to Michigan in the semifinals of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs March 16, 2012 at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
Nell is sixth nationally with a 1.79 goals-against average and ninth with a .933 save percentage.
START: The Falcons brought a physical presence to the game for most of the first period and even took the 1-0 lead. They were hard on pucks and finished checks on Miami’s best players, but the RedHawks won most of the one-of-one battles over the final two periods.
“We came out strong,” Nell said. “We scored the first goal and got rewarded right away. Too many times this year, we’ve taken our foot off the gas when that happens. We’re just losing some battles we should have won. Something was off tonight. I couldn’t tell you exactly what. It’s a tough loss against an in-state rival.”
Miami tied the game on Anthony Louis’ 5 on 3 power-play goal from the right circle at 12:37 of the second period. The RedHawks then took the lead less than three minutes when Sean Kuraly was in front to tip in a bouncing puck.
“They were hungrier than we were,” Bergeron said. “They wanted it a lot more than we did. No matter what sport it is, when one team wants it more than the other, that’s what you get. It was a lopsided game. They wanted it more than we did. For me, that’s really hard to swallow … We’ve tried to pride ourselves on people who are just hungry. We got out-hungered for things tonight.”
SWEEP: The RedHawks completed a sweep of the home-and-home series that started with a 2-1 win in Oxford Jan. 16. BG held a 29-27 edge in shots during that game, but Miami scored the winning goal with just two seconds remaining.
“Full marks to them,” Bergeron said of Miami. “They played better tonight than they did a month ago when we played them down there. They were relentless tonight. They were harder than us on pucks. They were hungry.”
The RedHawks trapped BG in its defensive zone for prolonged stretches during the game. And when BG broke out of its own zone, Miami quickly stopped the Falcons and counter attacked. The game was a track meet as the Falcons failed to generate sustained pressure in their offensive zone.
“A lot of frustration,” Nell said of the mood in the locker room after the game. “As a team, we didn’t show up. We could have played a lot better game.”
The RedHawks are 6-2 in their last eight games, all of which have come against Top 20 teams.
PENALTIES: Bergeron was furious with BG’s lack of discipline. The Falcons took a season-high 10 penalties (all minors) and were short-handed seven times, including two 5 on 3s.
Bergeron was especially unhappy with Mitch McLain’s cross-checking penalty just 39 seconds into the third period that gave Miami a two-man advantage for 34 seconds. The RedHawks didn’t score on the 5 on 3, but it took time off the clock with the Miami holding a 2-1 lead.
BG’s previous high for penalties was eight. The Falcons are averaging 4.6 penalties and 9.9 penalty minutes per game.
“He’s supposed to be a leader on our team, killing a penalty, takes an absolutely unnecessary penalty in front of our bench,” Bergeron said. “That’s not the hunger we’re looking for. That’s not the fight we’re looking for. That’s never who we’re going to be. We’re not going to be punks and doing things that don’t win championships and win games, and that’s what that play was. That’s disappointing.
“But that’s a huge play right there,” Bergeron added. “We want to be hungry. We want to be hard. We want to be desperate. But there’s a line and you go over that line, you’re out of control. We’re not going to be undisciplined and out of control.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons were 1 of 4 on the power play, while Miami was of 1 of 7.
Miami’s penalty-killing ranks second nationally at 92.7 percent. BG’s power-play goal was just the seventh allowed by the RedHawks this season.
BG was short-handed for 9:47 in the game and was on the power play for 6:46.
WCHA: The Falcons and Michigan Tech both fell three points behind Minnesota State for first place in the league. The Mavericks played a 3-3 tie Friday at Alabama-Huntsville, while Michigan Tech is idle this weekend.
Ferris State is just one point behind BG and Tech after posting a 5-1 win at home against Northern Michigan.
Minnesota State has 32 points, followed by BG and Tech with 29, Ferris with 28 and Northern with 22. Northern has seven games remaining, while BG and Tech have six, and Minnesota State and Ferris have five.
The top four teams in the league host first-round playoff series.
The Minnesota State-UAH and Ferris-Northern series both finish Saturday night.
CROWD: The BG-Miami game drew a crowd of 4,025, BG’s largest of the season. The previous best was 3,511 against Alaska-Anchorage on Jan. 21 for 6-2 Falcon win.
NEXT: The Falcons return to action next Friday and Saturday at Alaska (Fairbanks).
The Nanooks (7-17-4, 5-13-4) are ninth in the league, two points behind Alaska-Anchorage for the final playoff spot. Both teams have six games remaining.