One of Bowling Green’s strengths is its puck possession game in the offensive zone.
The Falcons are at their best when they’re controlling puck deep in the offensive zone, allowing them to generate sustained pressure and scoring chances that lead to goals.
They’ll need more of the same Friday when they take on Minnesota State in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
BG rallied to win the final two games of its quarterfinal series against Bemidji State by playing more of the game in its offensive zone. The Falcons struggled with turnovers in Game 1 when they lost a 3-1 decision, the turnovers leading to odd-man rushes and scoring chances for the Beavers. Those miscues also reduced the amount of time BG spent in its offensive zone.
The Falcons have big, strong forwards, who have the skills to make good plays and score. BG is second in the WCHA in scoring (2.85 goals per game), while Minnesota State is the top defensive team (1.97 gpg).
The Mavericks are averaging 2.82 goals per game, fourth-best in the league. Most of BG’s struggles against Bemidji resulted from turnovers in the defensive zone and through the neutral zone.
“This team is capable of playing in their zone,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of Minnesota State. “But they’d rather play in transition, and they’d rather go the other way. We’re going to have to make them as uncomfortable as possible playing in their own zone which means breaking the puck out, which means coming through the neutral zone with good hard plays with the puck, and making sure we’re making them turn around and defend.”
The Falcons posted 7-2 and 3-1 wins in the final two games of the series.
“Our competition level continued to improve from not very good Friday to pretty good on Sunday,” Bergeron said. “Our play with the puck did the exact same thing in terms of the progression, not good at all Friday and Sunday pretty good.
“We think we’re at our best when we’re playing with the puck in the offensive zone,” Bergeron said. “But when we’re not doing that, we’re turning pucks over, we’re chasing the other team around and they’re playing in transition when it doesn’t play to our advantage.”
MORE BG: Minnesota State coach Hastings also likes BG’s possession game in the offensive zone.
“They’re a heavy team,” Hastings said. “They’re strong, and they like to utilize that as much as possible. They’re going to come out and be physical. They like to play below the dots (in the offensive zone) which they’re very good at.”
Hastings also singled out forwards Mark Cooper and Brandon Hawkins, defensemen Mark Friedman and Sean Walker, and goalie Chris Nell for their efforts this season.
“That’s enough for us to chew on in a short week,” Hastings said. “We’re playing a team that is hungry. Our team is going to have to be ready.”
LATELY: Minnesota State is 9-4-2 in its last 15 games, but only 2-2 in its last four. The Mavericks went to a third game before winning their quarterfinal series against Lake Superior, posting a 3-0 victory in Game 3.
“Some good, some not so good. I wish we were on a roll, like some of the other teams are,” Hastings said of his team’s play of late.
MSU had three all-league players — senior forward Teddy Brueger and junior defenseman Casey Nelson were on the first-team, and senior forward and Bryce Gervais was on the third-team.
ONE AND DONE: The Falcons have been inconsistent during the second half, but they responded well against Bemidji by winning two elimination games.
“The difference today versus last week, we still had games to respond to a bad effort or a bad game,” Bergeron said. “Now, we don’t have that opportunity. Let’s not have a bad effort or a bad game. We still think that best game is out there. It’s another opportunity to get better. There’s a more consistent game in us. Why not now?”
INJURY UPDATE: Bergeron said BG sophomore forward John Schilling is “day to day” after suffering back and neck injuries in Game 2 of the Bemidji series. The Falcons didn’t practice Monday and Schilling was in a red jersey (meaning no contact) during Tuesday’s practice.
“Friday’s going to be here real quick, and we’ve got healthy bodies,” Bergeron said.
ATTENDANCE: WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson hopes the lower bowl at Van Andel Arena will be filled for the tournament. The arena has a capacity of just under 11,000 for hockey, and a crowd of about 4,000-5,000 would be needed to do that.
“I’m so excited about that potential,” Robertson said.
Robertson is hoping to fill the lower bowl for the second semifinal which features two Michigan teams — Michigan Tech and Ferris State. Ferris is about 50 miles from Grand Rapids.
“We expect a tremendous crowd,” Ferris assistant coach Drew Famulak said.
Michigan Tech is the No. 1 seed and will be the home team against Ferris, but Tech coach Mel Pearson believes the game will feel like a road contest.
“(The game is) out their back door,” Pearson said.
Pearson, however, expects a good turnout of Tech fans at the game because the school has a number of alums in the Grand Rapids area.
When the WCHA Final Five was at Grand Rapids in 2014, the BG-Minnesota State game at 2 p.m. drew an announced crowd of 2,700 and the Ferris-Alaska-Anchorage game at 7 p.m. drew an announced crowd of 4,494. But the actual attendance for the BG game appeared to be little more than family and friends.
Separate admissions were charged for each semifinal then, but the WCHA moved to the semifinals to 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. local time last season in St. Paul, Minn., resulting in one ticket being good for both games.
FUTURE: Although Robertson declined further comment, he said the league is looking for host sites for the Final Five for 2018 and beyond. The original contract called for the Final Five to be played in Grand Rapids in 2014 and 2016, and St. Paul, Minn. in 2015 and 2017.
Again, declining further comment, Robertson said he’s “looking at expansion opportunities as we speak.” Arizona State is looking for a league home and rumors of additional league realignment are popular nationally.
NCAA: Tech most likely is the only WCHA team which still has a chance to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA playoffs.
The Huskies are 15th in the Pairwise Rankings which mirror the NCAA selection criteria. They probably need to beat Ferris to secure an at-large berth, assuming there are no upsets in the other league playoffs. There is no third-place game in the WCHA Final Five.
The six league playoff champions and 10 at-large teams make up the NCAA field. Atlantic Hockey’s champion most likely will be outside the top 16 of the Pairwise, so that means teams will have to at least be in the top 15 to earn an at-large berth.
“Absolutely,” Pearson said when asked if he believed his team still needed one win to most likely claim an at-large berth. “You don’t want to hope someone else loses, depend on other results.”
Minnesota State is 24th in the Pairwise, while BG is 27th and Ferris is tied for 30th. The WCHA is suffering in the Pairwise and with its reputation nationally because of its 27-35-9 nonleague record, including a 4-19-2 record against the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“It’s unfortunate because this league is as good as any league right now,” Pearson said. “I know the teams in this league. I know the players in this league. I know the players in this league. This league is good as any in the country.
“It’s unfortunate that we maybe stubbed our foot a little bit outside of conference,” Pearson added. “Any one of these four teams this weekend would represent our league well in the NCAA tournament. We understand the only way we can guarantee ourselves a spot is to win two games.”
Even though the league has a losing record in nonleague play, Robertson tried to put a positive span on the situation: “Parity is the word to describe the league, top to bottom.”
“Nothing comes easy in this league … Whoever is left standing after this weekend is going to have earned it,” Hastings said.
FUTURE PROS: Hastings also pointed out the league has talented players who are headed for pro hockey in the near future.
“There’s a lot of really good hockey players (in the league),” Hastings said. “You see the NHL guys in your building who are waiting for seniors or underclassmen to get done with this weekend. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for players from our league to move on. That says a lot about our league.”
ON A ROLL: Michigan Tech, ranked 12th nationally, has lost only once since Jan. 1. The Huskies are 12-1-3 overall in that span, the lone loss coming Feb. 19 in a 3-0 defeat at Bemidji State. Tech was 9-1-2 in its final 12 WCHA games to earn a share of the league championship
“Our team seems to be coming together at the right time,” Pearson said. “We’ve got a great group of seniors who are leading our team right now. The thing about our team more than anything is the depth. We don’t have any one superstar. We’re a real good team and that’s what helped us to have the success we’ve had. We’ve been in playoff mode for a while. They’re really focused on this weekend.”
The Huskies lead the league with an average of 3.42 goals per game and are second in goals allowed, 2.11 per game.
Senior forward Alex Petan was named the league’s player of the year and was a first-team pick. Also for the Huskies, senior goalie Jamie Phillips and sophomore defenseman Matt Roy were named to the second team. Tech also had three players named to the third-team — senior forward Malcolm Gould, junior forward Tyler Heinonen, and junior defenseman Shane Hanna.
FOCUS: Michigan Tech enjoyed its time with the McNaughton Cup, which is presented to the league champion. The Huskies brought the McNaughton Cup into their locker room before their playoff series against Alaska (Fairbanks) and shared it with their fans on the ice after winning the series.
“This team has great focus, so instead of hiding (the trophy), I wanted to make sure it was out in the open and enjoy it,” Pearson said, adding his team is “as dialed in as any team I’ve been with.”
Pearson’s 33-year coaching career includes time at Michigan where he helped the Wolverines to two NCAA championships.