GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Bowling Green still is looking to take the next step.
The Falcons lost in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five for the third straight season Friday, dropping a 2-1 decision to Minnesota State at Van Andel Arena.
The Mavericks scored twice in a 102-second span early in the first period and held BG off the rest of the way.
Sophomore forward Mitch McLain scored the Falcon goal during a 6 on 4 power play with 3:55 remaining in the game. BG had pulled goalie Chris Nell for the extra attacker just 11 seconds before the goal.
BG finished 22-14-6 overall and was third in the league with a 16-7-5 record, but the loss left the Falcons with a bittersweet end to the season.
The Falcons believed their experiences of having been to the Final Five the last two seasons would pay off in a solid performance and a victory.
But BG started slowly, falling behind 2-0 in the first seven minutes and not righting its game until the second period. The Falcons made several strong pushes during the final 40 minutes, but solved MSU goalie Cole Huggins just once.
The MSU goals came from Brad McClure at 5:18 and Casey Nelson at the 7-minute mark.
“We seemed ready to go and excited to play,” McLain said. “A lot of guys in that room have been there before. They’re a good team if you given them chances, they bury them. We just didn’t make the plays right away. It took us a while to get into it.”
“I don’t think there’s any particular reason,” BG defenseman and junior captain Sean Walker said of the slow start. “They threw the first punch, and they were ready right away. It took us until the second period to get into it.”
“Our group has been through enough where you’re down 2-0, but the mood on the bench was the same,” said BG coach Chris Bergeron, who is his sixth season. “We’ve got to start to play better, whether it was 2-0 or 1-0. We showed signs of it and at the end we were pushing and pressing. You just can’t let guys get out ahead of you like that.”
McClure’s goal resulted from sloppy defensive-zone play by BG, while the goal by Nelson came after the Mavericks won a puck battle in BG’s defensive zone. Nelson scored on a screen shot from the right point.
“It doesn’t help. They got pretty big momentum from that,” Walker said of Nelson’s goal that made it 2-0.
MSU plays Saturday night for a third straight Broadmoor Trophy championship, presented annually to the league’s playoff champion. It was won the last two WCHA playoff titles.
The Mavericks and Michigan Tech shared the league’s regular-season championship this season, and MSU also won the McNaughton Cup (the league’s regular-season championship trophy) last season.
Most of the Mavericks had played on at least one of those two championships, and the ones who didn’t actually see game action were members of the team.
“For sure,” McClure said when asked if the Mavericks’ championship experience was a difference in his team’s fast start. “We have a little bit of confidence in ourselves, but we know Bowling Green’s a really good hockey club. You can never take clubs lightly no matter how much experience you have.
“At times, that (experience) really played out tonight in our favor,” Nelson said.
The Falcons’ past two trips to the Final Five resulted in a 4-0 loss to Minnesota State in Grand Rapids in 2014 and a 5-2 loss to Michigan Tech in St. Paul, Minn. last season.
Tech scored three times in the final 15 minutes of that game after BG’s Brent Tate tied the game 2:16 into the final period.
Fourteen of the 19 Falcons who played against MSU had been to the Final Five at least once, but none have won a championship. The BG lineup included the five freshmen and six sophomores.
“It can’t hurt,” Bergeron said of the Mavericks’ experience. “But that’s a 2-1 game where a bounce here, a bounce there … It was a pretty tight game. Did their experience help them get off to a 2-0 lead? I don’t think it hurts, and I’m a firm believer the more times you’re in a situation the better you’ll respond the next time you’re in that situation, regardless of our result today.”
The Mavericks improved to 22-12-7 overall.
“That was a very important start to the game,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “We started the game with good energy on the bench, but it helps you get off to a confident start. The guys played quick, played fast early.”
“That seemed to the second half of our year, for sure,” McLain said. “We tended to get guys get ahead of us, and then try to chase them at the end. You can’t do that against good teams.”
The Falcons made several strong pushes during the second and third periods, but Huggins made three point-blank saves in a three-minute span of the second period, and Walker hit the post near the 5-minute mark of the third period. The Falcons held a 24-23 edge in shots during the game.
“I didn’t love the way we started, but we finished really hard,” Bergeron said. “Part of the disappointment is we showed some signs of being pretty good. I would have liked to have seen us play a little more consistently like that throughout the game.
“Minnesota State had something to say about that,” Bergeron added. “They’re champions for a reason. But I would have liked us to show that level of desperation a little bit earlier before we took a couple punches.”
The Falcons’ 22 wins this season completed back-to-back 20-victory seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996. BG was 23-11-5 last season, including a 17-8-3 mark in the league.
This season, however, also saw a WCHA regular-season championship slip away from BG during the final weekend at Alabama-Huntsville.
The Falcons finished two points shy of Minnesota State and Michigan Tech for first place following a poor performance in a 7-5 loss to UAH in the series opener. BG rebounded to post a 5-0 win in Game 2, but finished 16-7-5 in the league for 37 points.
BG finished second in the WCHA coaches poll with 79 points to trail Minnesota State with 89 and one point ahead of third-place Tech. The Mavericks had eight of the 10 first-place votes, while BG and Tech each had one.
The Falcons haven’t won a regular-season league title since 1987, a league playoff championship since 1988 or been to the NCAA playoffs since 1990. They just missed an NCAA berth by .0002 last season after losing in the WCHA Final Five.
“I’m really proud of our group,” Bergeron said. “The expectations were high coming into this year. It’s funny how quickly things change. We’ve got 22 wins this year, (and we’re) answering questions about what went wrong. That’s a good thing. I say that in a very positive way.
“We were back to the Final Five for the third year in a row which talks about consistency,” Bergeron added. “I’m very proud of them to a man. I probably don’t tell them that enough.”