Mark Friedman has always been an elite-level skater who can create offense.
And since he’s been at Bowling Green, he’s steadily improved his defensive play.
The junior has provided the Falcons with a mix of quality offense and defense this season.
He has five goals and 10 assists, and an on-ice rating of +3, entering games Thursday and Friday against 17th-ranked and Western Collegiate Hockey Association leader Bemidji State.
“I feel good about my game right now,” Friedman said. “To date, this has been my best year since I’ve been at Bowling Green. The defensive side of my game is the best it’s been since I first got here.
“If you have good defense, you have good offense. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, and keep getting better and better in the (defensive) zone.”
Friedman’s improvement defensively has come from fine-tuning the little things.
“That’s something I’ve been focused on,” Friedman said. “My gap control is a lot better. My stick is a lot better, more active. I’m doing a better job of controlling time and space in the defensive zone.”
Friedman’s been a regular on defense since joining the Falcons. He had 20 goals and 67 assists in 132 games during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons for Waterloo in the United States (Junior) Hockey League.
The Toronto, Ontario native was a first-team All-WCHA honoree last season as a sophomore. He was also named to the league’s all-rookie team as a freshman.
Friedman has 13 goals and 44 assists, and on-ice rating of +18 in 103 games at BG. He’s an excellent passer and shooter, and his skating allows him to join the rush.
Friedman plays on the power-play and penalty-killing units.
“He’s more confident today,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said when asked to compare Friedman’s game at the end of last season compared to where he’s at this season. “Attention to detail without the puck has been his biggest challenge … that is probably a little bit better than what he’s been in the past.
“Just the way he’s skating and his ability to get involved in the rush, but yet defend and get back and defend and help defending seems to be better this year than it has been before,” Bergeron added.
Friedman’s game has benefitted from his attending the prospects camp of the Philadelphia Flyers the last three years. The Flyers drafted him in the third round, 86th overall, in 2014.
“I feel like I put in a lot of hard work in during the summer, training with really competitive guys, guys who are above me in the AHL or the NHL, just to see how they compete,” Friedman said. “I want to be like that. When you work out or play with guys who are really competitive, it rubs off on you.”
Friedman could forego his senior season with the Falcons to sign with the Flyers. He said he’d make a decision about his future once BG’s season is over.
“I don’t worry about it,” Friedman said of the decision to turn pro. “I’m only worried about today and today only.”
Friedman has a grade-point average of just under 3.0. He’s majoring in sport management.
ON TOP: After finishing sixth in the WCHA coaches poll, Bemidji is 14-7-3 overall and 14-2-2-1 in the league. It leads the league with 46 points, 10 ahead of second-place Michigan Tech and 20 ahead of third-place BG.
Bemidji started the post-Christmas portion of its schedule last weekend with a split at Alaska-Anchorage. The Beavers didn’t have an off weekend until Christmas, playing 11 straight series and back-to-back road series twice.
“It was a great first half,” Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said after practice Wednesday in BG’s Slater Family Ice Arena. “I’m proud of what we accomplished. It’s a testament to the character of our guys, but it’s over and the second half is a whole new season.”
The Beavers’ final 10 league games are against the five teams immediately below them in the standings. They host Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, and visit BG, Alabama-Huntsville and Ferris.
“We’re happy with where we’re at right now,” Serratore added. “Now, we have to maintain. We have to remain hungry and continue to play well.”
The Beavers’ strength is a stingy defense. They’re allowing just 1.62 goals per game, and Michael Bitzer is one of the country’s best goalies. The junior ranks second nationally with a 1.47 goals-against average and fifth with a .938 save percentage.
Bemidji has scored two or fewer goals in 16 of their 24 games, but is 7-6-3 in those games. The Beavers are 9-5-3 in games decided by two or fewer goals.
“We’re winning a lot of these tight games,” Serratore said. “Once you win tight games, you feed off that. You gain a lot more confidence.”
WHAT GIVES: The Falcons are the WCHA’s second-highest scoring team, but they’ll be tested by Bemidji’s solid team defense. BG is scoring 3.09 goals per game.
“We’re going to try to focus on spending more time in their zone and how important that is,” Bergeron said. “Because of the way they defend, in particular their goaltender, we need more opportunities on him. They’re defending at a big-time level.”
BG had just 46 shots total at Bemidji Oct. 7-8 when the Beavers posted a 2-1, 4-1 sweep. The Falcons are averaging 28.7 shots per game, while Bemidji allows 24.0.
“We need to be upwards of 20 chances,” Bergeron said, referring to quality scoring chances and not shots on goal. “The only way we do that is to spend more time in their zone. The only way we do that is don’t turn pucks over through the neutral zone, we’re a good second- and third-effort team in the (offensive zone), so we’re not a one-and-done team.
“You only get 10 chances against Michael Bitzer, you’re not going to get the amount of goals you need to get to win,” Bergeron added. “We want to make sure we’re getting enough chances.”
Bitzer has started 23 of his team’s 24 games this season, and has a 1.85 goals-against and a .936 save percentage in 85 career games. This season, he leads the nation in wins (14) and minutes played (1389:26), and is tied for fourth in shutouts (four).
“His level (of play) has improved. Not that his level last year or the year before wasn’t good, but he’s at whole new level this year,” Bergeron said of Bitzer.
The Beavers’ defensive corps has just two upperclassmen — senior Carter Struthers and junior Brett Beauvais. “It’s been everybody,” Serratore said of Bemidji’s stinginess. “Everyone on the ice plays a role in that.”
OFFENSE: Seven Beavers have 10 or more points, including senior forward Phillip Marinaccio, who leads the team with 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists).
Seniors Brendan Harms and Charlie O’Connor, and juniors Gerry Fitzgerald and Kyle Bauman have combined for 25 goals and 33 assists. Harms is injured and won’t play this weekend.
Bemidji is seventh in the league in scoring at 2.29 goals per game. They’ve scored one goal in four straight games and in seven of their last nine contests.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Beavers have had excellent play from their special teams.
The Bemidji penalty-killing is second nationally at 91.5 percent (86 of 94), while the power play leads the league at 19.2 percent (20 of 104).
The BG power play is sixth in the WCHA at 13.1 percent (17 of 130), including a 0-of-13 effort at Bemidji.
The Falcon penalty-killing hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in seven of their last nine games, going 38 of 41 in that span. The Bemidji power play was 2 of 12 against BG.
DISCIPLINE: The Beavers have helped their penalty-killing by facing an average of just 3.92 power plays per game.
Bemidji is just one of two teams in the country averaging fewer than 10 penalty minutes per game. The Beavers are averaging 9.8 minutes per game, second-fewest to St. Cloud at 9.3. BG averages 15.6 penalty minutes per game.
TRAVEL: The BG series ends a l 2-day road trip for Bemidji. The Beavers flew to Chicago immediately after Saturday’s game in Anchorage, arriving in the Windy City Sunday morning.
The Beavers remained in Chicago Monday and part of Tuesday before busing to BG. They attended Monday’s NBA game between the Chicago Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets. Bemidji heads home after Friday’s game.
The Beavers are off next weekend and then host Ferris State Jan. 20-21.
SWITCH: Bemidji’s series at Alaska-Anchorage last weekend originally was scheduled for Feb. 24-25, but was moved after the WCHA announced its three-week playoff format last spring.
The change in the playoff format shortened the regular season by one week. The games scheduled for the final week of the regular season (March 4-5) were moved to Feb. 24-25. The games originally scheduled for Feb. 24-25 then had to be rescheduled.