Bowling Green’s special teams are showing improvement after a difficult start this season, Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said.
The Falcons have scored a power-play goal in eight of the last 11 games, and killed off 56 of their last 64 short-handed situations in the last 13 games.
“The special teams I’ve been happy with, for the most part,” Bergeron said of the recent performances by the special teams. “The results have varied, but our overall play on the special teams has been better.”
The improved special teams is one of the reasons BG is 9-1-1 in its last 11 games overall and 6-1-1 in its last eight Western Collegiate Hockey Association games.
The Falcons, 8-8-2 overall and 7-4-1-1 in WCHA, host Michigan Tech (10-7-3, 9-3-2-1) Friday and Saturday in a league series.
“It can be a strength of our team, and it should be a strength of our team,” Bergeron said of the special teams. “Hopefully, the players are feeling the same thing. It wasn’t a strength early, and, arguably, it was costing us games. As of late, it’s been much better. We have to have strong special teams. We emphasize the special teams.
“Getting to this point in the season, it’s really difficult to practice (special teams) at full speed, so it’s more video work and Xs and Os discussions,” Bergeron added. “Our guys have done a nice job with getting ready for each opponent. It’s not always perfect, but we’re doing a pretty good job on both sides of the special teams.”
POWER PLAY: The Falcons are 6-2-2 when scoring a power-play goal this season.
“We’ve done a better job of spending time in the other team’s zone,” Bergeron said of the improvement. “I don’t think we’re trying to force plays. The one thing we’re staying away from is trying to create something that’s not there and taking what the game gives us which is easier said than done on the power play because you always want to make it that pretty play.
“We’re in the middle of the year now,” Bergeron added. “The form now is better than it is at the beginning at the year, just based on reps, based on practice, based on reps in games. You’re seeing groups that are a little more cohesive, a little more in synch.”
One of BG’s two power-play units has relied on freshman defenseman Alec Rauhauser to quarterback the group. He’s played well with two goals and 11 assists, but is only 16 games into his college career.
“When you put the onus on a power play unit on a freshman, that takes some time for him,” Bergeron said. “That’s not an excuse. That’s just real. You can’t teach experience.”
PK: Although the Falcon penalty-killing is at 78.6 overall this season, it’s at 87.1 percent in league games only — third-best in the WCHA. BG’s penalty-killing hasn’t allowed a goal in 28 chances during the last four games.
“We’re going out there with a lot of confidence. You kind of get amped up when you see the referee’s arm go up because you know this is a big time to go out there and make a difference,” said junior Tyler Spezia, a member of BG’s penalty-killing unit.
“As of late, it’s been way better, just detail oriented, guys being on the same page and refusing to lose battles, and being hard on the puck,” Spezia added.
The Falcon penalty-killing has been among the nation’s best the last two seasons, ranking 10th last season at 89.8 percent and second in 2015 at 85.9 percent.
“A big kill, whether it’s because our opponent isn’t getting set up in our zone or we’re sacrificing our bodies to block shots, fires the team up. You can get some energy from that, and it really helps spark the team.”
PROGRESSING: BG’s John Schilling has played well of late. Most recently, the sophomore forward set up Lukas Craggs’ short-handed, game-winning goal with 14:16 left in regulation Saturday at Lake Superior. The goal broke a 2-2 tie and BG won 5-2.
“He’s starting to look more like Johnny,” Bergeron said “He’s a forechecker. He’s a relentless guy on the puck and off the puck. I believe he’s a good penalty-killer, and he’s showing that more. Hopefully, this is just the start of him having a really good second part of the season.”
Schilling has three goals and two assists, and an on-ice rating of +2 in 16 games. He was slowed by a concussion suffered at Western Michigan Oct. 15, and missed BG’s series at Ohio State the following weekend.
The 5-foot-10, 168-pounder played in 37 games as a freshman, totaling five goals and eight assists with an on-ice rating of +4.
“He’s been playing more like what we were expecting and what he was expecting from himself,” Bergeron said. “We were hoping he would take a step this year. We know there’s hockey player in Johnny.”
Bergeron said Schilling had a good summer in the weight room where he became bigger, faster and stronger. The previous summer before coming to BG, Schilling worked on recovering from a junior hockey injury.
“(His hard work during the summer) hasn’t shown in terms of consistency and his body of work to this point,” Bergeron said. “(But) It hasn’t been bad.”
BG was expecting Schilling to pick up some of the scoring load after junior Brandon Hawkins left the team just before the start of the season, Bergeron said. He’s skated on a line at times this season with Spezia and McLain, who have combined for 14 goals and 19 assists.
“When you lose a player just before the regular season starts, (who is) a junior, Johnny gets put in a situation where it’s almost unfair at times,” Bergeron said. “You expect him to be more than a sophomore, but he’s a sophomore. He’s played half a season as a sophomore.”
CONTRIBUTOR: Craggs has played well of late, skating on a line with McLain and Spezia. The freshman forward has two goals and one assist in the last three games. He also has three shots and on-ice rating of +4 in that span.
The 6-foot, 190-pounder is an agitator, who provides a physical presence, and has the skill and skating ability to generate offense.
“He gives us a little more grit, a little more physical play, which opens up room for everyone else,” McLain said. “He sees the ice well, and he’s willing to go get pucks, and that makes it easier on the other guys.”
TECH: The Huskies are rolling after they were swept at top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth and No. 16 Minnesota State to start the season. They’re 11-2-1 in their last 14 games overall and 10-1-1 in their 12 league games. Tech shared the WCHA’s regular-season championship last season.
“There’s not a weakness on this team,” Bergeron said.
The Huskies’ strength is a deep, talented and experienced defense, which includes second-team All-WCHA pick and junior Matt Roy and third-team honoree and senior Shad Hanna.
“(Tech will) fight you for every inch in the offensive zone,” Bergeron said.
Tech has allowed two of fewer goals in 10 of its last 12 games, including one or zero goals eight times.
“We have to continue play with that defensive first mindset,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said Monday on his weekly radio show. “If we do that, we’ll continue to be in good shape. Three is that magic number. The first team to three seems to win.”
Tech is second in the league in goals allowed (2.25 per game) and fifth in scoring (2.75 goals per game).
Four Huskies share the team scoring lead with 11 points — junior forward Joel L’Esperance (six goals, five assists), Hanna (five goals, six assists), freshman forward Alex Smith (four goals, seven assists) and junior defenseman Mark Auk (two goals, nine assists).
“Their forwards are really good,” Bergeron said. “It’s a by-committee group. They’ve got some guys who are unsung who don’t get the accolades they deserve in terms of the forwards, as far as I’m concerned.”
Freshman Angus Redmond has emerged at Tech’s No. 1 goalie. He’s started the last 12 games.
Redmond leads the nation with a 1.47 goals-against average and is tied for sixth with a .932 save percentage. He’s played in 13 games, posting a 9-2-1 record.
Sophomore Devin Kero and senior Matt Wintjes each started four games before Redmond took over. Kero had an .883 save percentage, while Wintjes had a save percentage of .859.
“Once they got the goaltending thing figured out … now they’re right back to where they were last year,” Bergeron said.
Tech also is third in both power-play conversions (18.2 percent, 18 of 99) and penalty-killing (85.5 percent, 100 of 117).
Pearson also likes the way the Falcons are playing.
“I expect two close, hard-fought games,” Pearson said. “We’re going to have to make sure we’re ready to bring our ‘A’ game to go down there and find a way to win. They’re a good team. They work hard. They really defend well, and they’ve got a good goalie.
“Scoring is going to be a premium again this weekend,” Pearson added. “Every weekend, I feel we’re going to have to play really well defensively and you have to on the road. You have to play rock solid on the road. You need good goaltending. You’ve got to stay disciplined. You have to stay out of the (penalty) box. You have to take advantage of the scoring chances you get because you’re not going to get many. Then you just have to be patient and stick to your game plan.”
RIVALRY: BG and Tech have developed a healthy rivalry during the last three-plus seasons, the result of their being two of the league’s top teams.
Nine of the 13 games the teams have played in the WCHA have been decided by two or fewer goals. Seven of the games were decided by one or zero goals. Bergeron is in his seventh season, while Pearson is in sixth season.
“We have a bunch of respect for them,” Bergeron said. “To me, they’re a program we want to be like. Their nonconference results show they’re a team that plays the same way against everybody and anybody. They’re not afraid to play anybody anyplace anywhere. That’s what we want to be like.”
SERIES: BG is 9-13-3 all-time against Tech, including a 5-6-2 record as WCHA rivals.
The Falcons and Tech were rivals in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association from 1981-84 before Tech left the CCHA to return to the WCHA.