Bowling Green is using its next two series to see where it stands against some of the top teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Falcons learned they still have a long way to go to be a championship team.
They offered little fight and didn’t play well during the first two periods Thursday in a 2-1 loss to 17th-ranked and WCHA leader Bemidji State in the Slater Family Ice Arena.
The Beavers dominated the first two periods en route to a 2-0 lead and held BG off during the final 20 minutes. The Falcons cut the lead to one on Mitch McLain’s power-play goal with 3:55 left in regulation.
Bemidji improved to 15-7-3 overall and 15-2-2-2 in the WCHA. The Beavers moved 13 points ahead of second-place Michigan Tech and 23 points ahead of third-place BG.
The Falcons, picked to win the WCHA in separate coaches and media polls, fell to 10-12-2, 8-8-1-1. They remained 10 points behind Tech, three ahead of fourth-place Minnesota State and Alabama-Huntsville and six points ahead of Ferris State.
The Beavers, who are the country’s best defensive team, limited BG to 16 shots and few quality scoring chances during the first two periods. The Falcons also had few flurries and little sustained pressure.
“We didn’t create even close to enough chances through two periods,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said.
BG rebounded to dominate the third period, but couldn’t tie the game. The Beavers’ Michael Bitzer made 11 of his 27 saves in the third period.
Bemidji is allowing 1.60 goals per game, including just 1.16 goals per game in league play. Its defense corps Thursday consisted of just one upperclassmen — junior Brett Beauvais. The remainder consisted of three sophomores and two freshmen.
“Probably, a little bit of pride,” Bergeron said of BG’s improved third period. “We didn’t have much fight in us the first two periods. I guess they realized we’re running out of time … too little, too late in the third.”
BG is at its best when it’s playing a puck possession game in the offensive zone. The Falcons didn’t have the puck enough against Bemidji, which defended well during the first 40 minutes. The Beavers also blocked 11 shots in the game.
“When we’re moving below the goal line and moving our feet and making crisp passes and catching those passes, it opens up (shooting) lanes,” McLain said. ”You saw that in the third. We weren’t doing enough of that early. We’re a strong team below the goal line. When we’re moving our feet, we’re going to create chances.”
Bitzer saw most of the shots the Falcons had. He ranks second nationally with a 1.45 goals-against and fifth with a .939 save percentage. He’s started 24 of Bemidji’s 25 games, posting a 15-6-3 record.
“I don’t think we made it difficult. There was not much chaos in front of their net,” Bergeron said.
OVERALL: After facing Bemidji, the Falcons visit No. 19 Minnesota State next week.
“We owe it to ourselves to start playing better,” McLain said. “These next four games are a measuring stick for us. We’re treating them like playoff series and see how we match up against (the top) teams in our league.”
BG has a chance to earn a series split Friday night at 8:37. The Falcons are 0-3 against the Beavers this season, losing 2-1 and 4-1 at Bemidji Oct. 7-8 to start the season.
“Tonight was tough,” McLain said. “We played (well) in the third. We have to build off that. We can’t hang our heads and get too frustrated from our first periods, but we have to start learning from them.”
BEMIDJI: The Beavers turned in a strong performance during the first 40 minutes.
Their solid team defense and Bitzer’s goaltending were complemented by goals from Dylan McCrory at 17:59 of the first period and Jay Dickman on the power play at 8:40 of the second period.
“We played well for two periods,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore, whose team was sixth in the coaches poll. “I can’t ask for any more out of our guys. We got a lead. We played hard. We executed well. We did a lot of little things well.”
The Beavers, despite playing with a depleted lineup because of injuries, improved to 7-2-1-1 in league road games.
“Those are 40 of the best minutes we’ve played on the road all year,” Serratore said.
Bemidji is without junior forward Brendan Harms, the team’s second-leading scorer; and sophomore defenseman Dillon Eichstadt. Both are injured and won’t play in the series. The Beavers have a number of other players nursing injuries.
“I couldn’t ask anything more of them, being short-handed. I was really proud of the guys,” Serratore said.
The last four minutes of the game were especially tough for the Beavers, who played almost all of that time in their own zone. Bemidji also withstood the final 86 seconds after the Falcons pulled goalie Chris Nell for the sixth attacker. It survived three defensive-zone faceoffs in that span.
“It was anxiety central,” Serratore said of the final minutes.
GOALTENDING: Nell turned in another excellent game, stopping 25 shots. He made 11 saves in the first period and 10 more in the second period. Nell stopped a breakaway to keep the score 2-0 with just under seven minutes left in the game.
“He made some really good saves,” Bergeron said. “We left him on an island a bunch, especially through (the first) two periods.”
Nell has a 2.04 goals-against and a .914 save percentage in his last 16 games.
LUCKY 13: McLain’s goal was his WCHA-leading 13th of the season. The junior forward is second in the league with 23 points. He has six goals and one assist in his last seven games, and has scored a goal in three straight games.
BAYLIS: BG’s Stephen Baylis assisted on McLain’s goal, giving him a point in four straight games. The sophomore forward has a goal and five assists in his last six games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons were 1 of 2 on the power play, while Bemidji was 1 of 4. Just six penalties (all minors) were called in the game.
RETURN: BG senior forward Matt Pohlkamp returned to the lineup after sitting out the Falcons’ Dec. 30 game against the Rochester Institute of Technology because of a lower-body injury.
HOME WOES: The Falcons have lost three straight games in the Slater Family Ice Arena where they’re 2-5-2 this season.