Bowling Green’s defense corps has the chance to be one of the team’s major strengths this season.
The Falcons have an excellent mix of defensive and offensive skills, and experience and youth on the blueline.
The defense is led by senior captain Sean Walker and junior Mark Friedman, who both received All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association recognition last season. Friedman was a first-team selection, while Walker was a second-team honoree.
Sophomores Connor McDonald, Chris Pohlkamp and Adam Smith also return after seeing extensive playing time last season. Rounding out the defense are freshmen Jacob Dalton, Alec Rauhauser and Niko Coffman.
“There’s a good mix back there. It has a chance to be a strong part of our team,” said BG coach Chris Bergeron, who is in his seventh season. “This is the most depth we’ve had on defense since we’ve been here.”
“Coming to the rink every day, we know there’s going to be a lot of internal competition,” Walker said. “That’s going to elevate everyone’s game. Having such depth on the back end and the front end every day, if you’re not playing well, there’s going to be someone else there to jump at the opportunity to get out there and play. Everyone is going to be on their game every day, and that helps the team overall.”
Depth also figures to be a strength of the Falcon defense as they have eight blueliners. BG had just five healthy defensemen at one point during the first half last season. As a result, Friedman and Walker played an average of 25 minutes during each 60-minute game.
Although McDonald, Pohlkamp and Smith experienced the usual ups and downs of a freshman defenseman last season, they still logged heavy minutes. Smith joined the team for the second half to help the depth and provide BG with another reliable defender. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the NHL’s Nashville Predators in June.
Walker’s and Friedman’s minutes should be more reasonable this season, although they’ll continue to be on the ice in all situations, especially key ones late in games.
“If definitely helps a lot,” Walker said of the increased depth on defense. “(Playing 25 minutes) really takes a toll where we can’t play to our full potential. We can’t be as offensive as we want to be. We can’t jump into the play as much. And that hurt the defense, too. We’re going to go out there with fresh legs every shift and be ready to go, and that makes the game easier to play for ourselves.”
“Our lack of depth on defense hurt us the most,” Bergeron said of last season. “You can always find depth up front. Goaltending, you’ve got depth. We kept putting people out there, even though maybe they didn’t deserve to be out there based on their play.”
This season, the Falcons have a deep and young but still experienced defense corps. They were third overall in the WCHA last season in goals allowed per game, 2.17 per game.
The experience and depth on defense should help BG improve its penalty-killing, which was at 85.9 percent last season. The Falcons ranked 10th nationally last season but was down from the previous season when they finished second nationally at 89.8 percent.
“Now, you’ve got those five kids returning, and you’ve got three incoming freshmen who are fighting, competing, scratching to get out there to play,” Bergeron said. “That, to me, brings out the best in everybody. That would be the No. 1 position I hope where you see the depth help us.”
The freshmen defensemen have the benefit of learning from Walker and Friedman, Bergeron said, just as McDonald, Pohlkamp and Smith did last season.
“There’s so much benefit to going out there and playing so much hockey,” Walker said of the experience gained by McDonald, Pohlkamp and Smith last season. “(They) got put in every situation. Come this year, they’re a little older, a little more mature, a little more comfortable, they go out and they know what to expect. You’re not nervous. You’re just ready to go. You know what’s going to happen, what’s going to develop on the ice. Everything is going to develop naturally.”
BG’s five returning defensemen can play in every situation, and the freshmen blueliners are expected to contribute immediately.
“I want the incoming freshmen learning from the upperclassmen,” Bergeron said. “When you look at Rauhauser and Dalton and Coffman, and say ‘OK, follow somebody,’ Sean Walker is a pretty good place to start, just the way he handles himself on and off the ice.
“(Friedman and Walker) are both all-league type players,” Bergeron added. “You talk about talent and work, both of those guys are talented players, and they’re workers. I want those sophomores continuing to learn from (Friedman and Walker). You can’t put a value on that, on how much (that) helps.”
GOOD TO GREAT: Friedman has had two good seasons with the Falcons after joining the program as a highly-touted prospect. The smooth skating junior has eight goals and 34 assists, and on-ice rating of plus-15 in 80 games.
“He needs to bring a little order to his game defensively and offensively,” Bergeron said when asked what Friedman needs to do to go from good to great. “He’s such a good skater, and he’s such a competitive kid that he gets himself a little out of control in the defensive zone, and then he finds himself chasing. If he can find his guy and stay with his guy, take away time and space without chasing the puck around, he’ll be an even better player.”
In the offensive zone, particularly at the blueline, Bergeron said the 5-foot-10, 196-pounder needs to play with a little more poise on the power play.
“You talk about the neutral zone or the offensive zone, he is just a special player. He can bring a little more order to his power-play game, especially at the offensive blueline,” Bergeron said.
Friedman, a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014, was named to the WCHA’s all-rookie team in 2015.
“If you can bring a little order to all that talent, you can have a special, special player, and he’s a special player already,” Bergeron said.
HONORING BUTCH: In memory of the late Oliver “Butch Mousseau, the WCHA will retire his officials’ jersey No. 12, the league announced. The league’s on-ice officials also will wear a specially-designed “12” sticker on their helmets this season.
Mousseau, a popular referee in the league, died March 25 after head injuries suffered from a fall to the ice during warmups prior to the second WCHA Final Five semifinal March 18 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was 48. Mousseau was full-time WCHA referee for 16 seasons.
WINDSOR: The Lancers, who were 17-16-1 last season, are 2-1 in their exhibitions this season. They posted a 3-0 win over Guelph and a 3-2 win over Ottawa. Carleton was a 4-1 winner over Windsor.
After playing BG Saturday, Windsor visits Michigan for another exhibition Sunday.
The Falcons are 4-0 against Windsor, but the teams haven’t played since Oct. 12, 2007.