Bowling Green faces an important Western Collegiate Hockey Association series this weekend.
The Falcons host Michigan Tech in a battle of two of the league’s top teams. Tech is second with 30 points, eight behind WCHA leader Bemidji State and seven ahead of the third-place Falcons. Minnesota State is fourth with 20.
Bemidji and Tech both have played 14 games, two more than BG and MSU.
Tech, Bemidji and MSU all play its final league series before Christmas this weekend. Bemidji hosts Lake Superior, while MSU visits Ferris State. The Falcons still have two series left as they travel to Alaska (Fairbanks) Dec. 16-17.
Tech and MSU shared the WCHA regular-season championship last season, finishing only two points ahead of BG. The Falcons were the coaches pick to win the WCHA this season, while Tech was second and MSU was third.
The Falcons have just two games each this season against Tech and MSU this season. They visit MSU Jan. 13-14, and host Bemidji Jan. 5-6 in a rematch of their season-opening series.
“I don’t want to down play what (Alaska)-Anchorage is, what Lake Superior is or what Ferris State is,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said when asked if this weekend’s series was more important than usual.
“But Michigan Tech, if that’s who we want to be … if that’s the program we want to be and it is, then it does mean a lot. They’re a rival. They’re a team we have to get through to get where we want to be this year.”
The Falcons dug themselves a hole in the WCHA by losing three of their first four league games, including two losses at Bemidji. BG is 6-1-1 in its last eight league games.
Tech is coming off a split at home against Bemidji, including a 2-1 win in the series finale that was Bemidji’s first WCHA loss of the season. Bemidji posted a 3-1 win in Game 1 of the series.
Tech split with Bemidji after back-to-back weekends in Alaska where it went 3-0-1 against Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska (Fairbanks).
“You’re a little disappointed,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said of the split on his weekly radio show Monday. “You want to win both games at home, but we won a very important game Saturday.
“Our backs were against the wall a little bit, but I liked our team all weekend,” Pearson added. “Our players really played hard, played with a lot of energy, with a lot of emotion. We just weren’t maybe as sharp as we needed to be, as you are during a normal week.”
IMPROVING: The Falcons are coming off a split at Lake Superior in a series where they played well most of the weekend. They posted a 5-2 victory in Game 2 after Lake Superior was a 4-2 winner in Game 1.
BG is 8-2-1 in its last 11 games overall after starting the season 0-6-1. The Falcons have played well during most of their last five series.
“Generally speaking, I like the fact the team is playing with confidence,” Bergeron said. “I just feel like our team has played more like we were expecting it to play. The leadership has taken over, and they’re basically driving the bus every day. I like the fact we’re doing more of what we’re supposed to be doing going into the year.
“Over the last 10 games, for sure, we’ve played some good games and didn’t have to find ways to win,” Bergeron added. “We just out-played our opponents. But there have been nights where we had to find a way. (At Lake Superior), we gave ourselves two chances (to win) … Did it result in two wins? No. But when you go on the road, against a difficult opponent, in a difficult place to play, you have to give yourself two chances to win, and we did that. That’s been more of the case of late. We’ve given ourselves opportunities pretty much every night to win the game.”
HOME ICE: Tech has played well at BG, posting a 3-0-1 record in the Ice Arena during the regular season since the schools became WCHA rivals for the 2013-14 season.
The Huskies posted a 4-1 win and a 4-4 tie at BG last season. They also swept at BG during the 2013-14 regular season, but the Falcons came back to a sweep Tech in a first-round WCHA playoff series in the Ice Arena five weeks later.
“We have not played well against that team in this building. That doesn’t happen very often,” Bergeron said. “We normally play pretty well against everybody in this building. I want to play well against this team at home. We get these home games, and we need to take advantage of them.”
The Falcons are 38-17-10 at home overall since joining the WCHA, including a 27-11-8 record at home in league games. They’re 2-2-2 at home this season.
“We know it’s going to be very difficult. That’s the exciting part of it,” Bergeron said of the Tech series. “Last weekend was difficult. Our guys’ eyes were open wide, and they ready to compete. They did a nice job with that. We need to do the same thing this weekend and use the home ice as our advantage and play better against this team than we’ve played.”
ROAD WARRIORS: Like BG, Tech has spent most of the first half of the season on the road where it’s played 13 of its first 20 games. The Huskies have played non-league series at Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan State and Michigan.
Tech is 5-6-2 on the road, including a 4-2-1 record in league play. The Huskies are 5-1-1 at home.
SOLID DEFENSE: Mark Friedman has played well during the Falcons’ recent surge. The junior defenseman has a goal and seven assists in the last nine games, and an on-ice rating of +4 in that span.
Friedman, a third round draft pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2014, has been even or better in seven of those eight games. He’s also totaled 22 shots on goal.
GOALTENDING: Ryan Bednard continues to push Chris Nell for the No. 1 job in goal for the Falcons.
Bednard made 28 saves Saturday in the win at Lake Superior after an 11-save shutout of Alaska-Anchorage in the Ice Arena Nov. 26. The freshman has stopped 39 of 41 shots in those two games, improving his goals-against average to 2.64 and save percentage to .880.
Bednard said his play has steadily improved every day during practice.
“I come to practice more prepared and getting the reps (repetitions) in helps me feel more comfortable,” Bednard said. “I’ve stepped up my game. I feel good about my game, but I have to keep pushing forward and keep improving. I’ve got my confidence back. I’ve stuck to the process, and things are starting to go my way. Now, I have to keep it going.”
Bednard’s first start was a difficult one as he stopped just 5 of 9 shots in 20:58 in an 8-2 loss at Western Michigan Oct. 15. The Falcons didn’t play well in front of Bednard and Western’s Lawson Arena is a tough place to play. The Broncos are 7-4-3 overall and ranked 17th nationally.
“He’s been working every day,” BG junior forward Mitch McLain said. “He’s seeing results, and he deserves those results.”
Bednard has started the last two Saturday games, with Nell, a senior, starting the Friday game in each series. Nell was a first-team All-WCHA pick last season.
INJURIES: The Falcons have no major injuries, Bergeron said.
Pearson said Tech will be without two solid forwards who are injured, senior Brent Baltus and junior Dylan Steman.
Baltus is expected to miss at least two months and maybe the rest of the season after being diagnosed last week with blood clots in his leg, Pearson said. Steman has missed the last eight games