HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Bowling Green was in contention to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship entering the final weekend of the regular season.
The team’s championship hopes ended when it couldn’t beat the last-place team in the league Friday night.
The Falcons played a sloppy game, filled with major mistakes, en route to a 7-5 loss to Alabama-Huntsville.
The loss dropped BG four points behind WCHA leader Minnesota State and two points behind Michigan Tech entering Saturday’s final night of the regular season. The Falcons still can tie Michigan Tech for second place, but they’ll be the No. 3 seed for the WCHA quarterfinals because they lose a tiebreaker with the Huskies.
Their struggles resulted from all sorts of miscues, including turnovers and defensive breakdowns. BG also gave up a goal after losing a defensive-zone faceoff. Five of the seven UAH goals were scored on odd-man rushes.
The Chargers had just 20 shots on goal in the game, but most of them were big-time scoring chances. BG had 32 shots on goal.
“Full marks to Huntsville. They’ve got a bunch of pride there,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said. “We didn’t play well, and our opponents did. We didn’t have anyone who was sharp. It was a full losing effort by the team, starting with me and going all the way down. We’re pretty disappointed, considering what was at stake (the league championship). We proved tonight we’re still not there.”
The Falcons entered the game second in the WCHA and ninth nationally for the fewest goals allowed at 2.11 goals per contest. Even after scoring the five goals, UAH still is scoring only 2.11 goals per game.
“They capitalized when we gave them chances,” said BG sophomore forward Brandon Hawkins, who had a goal and two assists, and a team-best five shots on goal.
The Falcons are 8-9-1 overall and 7-5-1 in the league since going to Christmas with records of 11-3-5, 8-2-4. The second half inconsistency prevented BG from winning a share of its first league championship since 1987 when it was first in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“We have the team to do it,” Hawkins said. “It’s a mind-set we have to go into every game and outwork our opponent, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
INCONSISTENT: The Falcons played a strong second period, scoring three times to erase a 3-1 deficit. They also started the game well, generating sustained pressure during the first few minutes and built a 1-0 lead on Kevin Dufour’s goal at 1.47.
But UAH scored three times in an eight-minute span of the first period, starting with Brent Fletcher’s equalizer at 7:03 after a BG turnover in the left corner of its defensive zone.
BG didn’t play well in the third period, either. The Chargers scored three straight goals for a 6-4 lead.
Matt Salheny tied the game at 8:13 on a breakaway after the Falcons turned the puck over at their offensive blueline.
UAH took a 6-4 lead on goals from Josh Kestner on the power play at 11:07 and Max McHugh, just 80 seconds later. Kestner scored on a back-door one-timer after UAH won a faceoff in its offensive zone, while McHugh capitalized on a 2 on 1 rush.
The Chargers scored four times in the third period.
“We stress every play matters, whether it’s a faceoff in the offensive zone or a play in front of our net,” Bergeron said. “They all matter. We found ourselves on the bad side on a lot of those plays. It was lots of things.
“The bottom line is this is what we did the second half of the year in a nutshell,” Bergeron added. “It was period to period tonight, not game to game.”
The Falcons closed within 6-5 on Sean Walker’s goal at 15:18, but Kestner’s empty-net goal with 1:24 left clinched the win.
“A couple of bounces took the wind out of us,” Hawkins said. “What we did in the second period made people think we were fine, we’re back in this, no more trying. We took our foot off the gas, and they’re back in it. You have to give (UAH) credit.”
IN GOAL: Although BG goalie Chris Nell was on an island by himself most of the night, he didn’t play as well as he has this season. The sophomore allowed six goals on 19 shots. Kestner’s empty-net goal with 1:42 remaining doesn’t count against Nell’s individual statistics.
Nell entered the game ranked fourth nationally in save percentage (.933) and fifth in goals-against average (.182). But after Friday’s game, he ranks 10th in goals-against (1.96) and 17th in save percentage (.928).
Nell did stop a 2 on 0 rush with the game tied 4-4 in the third period.
OFFENSE: The Falcons scored four or more goals for the fourth straight game, the first time that’s happened since January and February of 2005 when they did it against Notre Dame and Ferris on back-to-back weekends in the CCHA.
Nine different Falcons had points, including five goal-scorers. In addition to Hawkins, Walker and Stephen Baylis each had one goal and one assist, and Brett D’Andrea had two assists.
STATS: Tyler Spezia scored a goal for the Falcons, giving him a point in five straight games. He has three goals and three assists in that span.
Walker has a point in six straight games, totaling two goals and six assists in that span. The junior defenseman and captain has four goals and 17 assists in 31 games. He’s the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
Baylis has a point in four straight games, totaling two goals and four assists. He also has three goals and five assists in the last seven games, and five goals and five assists in the last 12 games.
Hawkins has two goals and three assists in the last two games after going seven straight games without a point.
Dufour’s goal was his fourth in the last three games. He had three goals in BG’s sweep of Ferris last weekend.
Mark Cooper had an assist, giving him a point in four straight games. He has two goals and four assists in that span, and four goals and four assists in the last seven games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons were 1 of 5 on the power play, while UAH was 1 of 4.
BG had a chance to tie the game with the extra man when Kestner was called for boarding at 16:28 of the third period, but it couldn’t score. Kestner came out of the box to score the empty-net goal on a breakaway after turned the puck over in the offensive zone.
Kestner’s first goal ended BG’s streak of four straight games of not allowing a power-play goal.
TIEBREAKER: BG loses the tiebreaker to Michigan Tech based on head-to-head play. Tech won the season series 2-1-1, including a win in a tie in the Ice Arena Jan. 29-30. The teams split at Tech Nov. 13-14.
RECORDS: The Falcons, who saw their three-game winning streak snapped, are 19-12-6 overall and 15-7-5 in the league. They still need one victory for back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996.
UAH is 7-20-6, 5-16-6. The Chargers are 2-1-3 in their last six home games. They also have two ties against Minnesota State in that span.
UAH was playing at home for the first time after back-to-back series at NMU and Bemidji.
NEXT: BG will host sixth-seeded Bemidji or Lake Superior in the WCHA quarterfinals March 11-12-13. Bemidji holds a two-point lead for sixth place over Lake Superior, which was a 3-1 loser at Ferris State. The only way Lake Superior can earn the No. 6 seed is if it beats Ferris and Bemidji loses again to Minnesota State.
The Falcons are 1-1-2 against Lake Superior, splitting in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in January and playing two ties in the Ice Arena in November. BG swept its only series against Bemidji on the road in December.
LINEUP: BG freshman defenseman Jordan Ernst and freshman forward Joe McKeown were healthy scratches for the game. Junior Tomas Sholl is the other goalie on the trip.
MORE WCHA: Minnesota State, ranked 16th nationally, and No. 13 Michigan Tech both won at home Friday.
The Mavericks were 6-1 winners over Bemidji State, and Tech was a 4-0 winner over Northern Michigan. Both series finish Saturday, but the Tech-NMU series moves to Marquette, Michigan.
Defending champion Minnesota State, the coaches pick to win the league title, has clinched a share of the WCHA championship. But it still needs a win or tie to wrap up the No. 1 seed for the league playoffs. If Minnesota State and Michigan Tech tie for first, Tech wins the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed.
THREE-DOT DATA: The BG forward line of Dufour, Pierre-Luc Mercier and John Schilling was -4 in the game … The Falcons lost for the first time this season when leading after two periods, falling to 14-1-1 in that situation … UAH entered the game 1-10-2 when trailing after one period and 1-15-2 when trailing after two periods … Bergeron still needs one victory to reach the 100-win mark for his career at BG. He’s 99-111-31 in six seasons with the Falcons, but 60-38-17 since the start of the 2013-14 season.