Bowling Green can clinch the final home-ice berth for the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs this weekend.
Two victories over Alabama-Huntsville in the Slater Family Ice Arena would enable the Falcons to earn the fourth seed and host a best-of-3 quarterfinal series against the fifth seed the following weekend.
The Falcons and Ferris State share fourth place in the WCHA with 38 points, but BG wins the fourth seed on the tiebreaker.
But Alaska (Fairbanks) and Lake Superior also are vying for home ice entering the final weekend of the regular season. Alaska is sixth with 34 points, while Lake Superior is seventh with 33 and hosts Ferris this weekend. UAF visits last-place Alaska-Anchorage.
The Falcons can finish no lower than sixth. They also win tiebreakers against UAF and Lake Superior.
UAH is next-to-last in the 10-team league with 30 points, one behind Northern Michigan for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Chargers are three points behind Lake Superior and four behind UAF.
“We have to play well. Huntsville is a program that is still trying to build itself back up,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “They … are fighting for a playoff spot this year. They’re going to come in here hungry.
“We just can not afford not to play like there’s something on the line. There absolutely is something on the line. We have to play like that because our opponent is going to.”
The Falcons and UAH were idle last weekend. BG has been off since a 3-0 nonleague win at home against Mercyhurst Feb. 11. UAH hasn’t played since it split at home Feb. 10-11 against WCHA champion Bemidji State.
“We’ve known for the last couple weeks we control what happens in terms of home ice in the first round,” Bergeron said. “We’ve been resting. We’ve been trying to get our game sharp and get our game right, and, obviously, having discussions how we think we need to put our best foot forward over these next three, four weeks.
“There’s no reason to scoreboard watch because all of that stuff didn’t affect us. We tried to control what we can and prepare.”
REVIEW: The Falcons have been inconsistent all season, usually only playing well during one game each weekend. BG is 6-10 in the WCHA since Dec. 1, with six of its eight series resulting in splits. The Falcons were swept in the other two series.
BG was the coaches and media pick to win the WCHA, but is only 15-17-2 overall and 12-13-1-1 in the league.
“There’s a lot of heads nodding and people agreeing with what’s being said,” Bergeron said. “All that’s being said is leave the individual stuff at the door, buy in, all in to a game plan and to be the absolute best teammate you can be, bring the best version of yourself, so we can bring the best version of our team. That hasn’t changed. That’s been the conversation all year long.
“When we struggle, we’ve got guys who want to do things away from the game plan, whether that’s out of good or bad intentions, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same result. It’s counterproductive.”
The Falcons were 6-3-1 in the league entering December after going 5-0-1 against NMU, UAH and UAA. The Falcons’ only sweeps this season came at NMU Nov. 11-12 and at UAH Nov. 18-19.
“We want everyone bought into the game plan,” Bergeron said. “We want everyone putting the program and the team first. If we do that, from a collective standpoint and then we try to get the best version of the individual within our team, that’s going to give us the best chance to have the best version of our team collectively. If do that, we’re gong to be a handful, and we know that.”
REMATCH: The Falcons posted a 4-1, 8-3 sweep at UAH, but they had to come from behind to win both games. The Chargers held a 1-0 lead after two periods in Game 1 and a 3-2 lead with just over 16 minutes remaining in Game 2.
“You’re always playing for playoff position and playoff implications,” Bergeron said. “You’re always doing that, but now it’s real. This is the last weekend of the year.”
The Chargers played the role of spoiler against the Falcons last season, posting a 7-5 win at home over BG in Game 1 of their final regular-season series. The loss prevented BG from earning a three-way tie for the league championship.
“Sometimes, young people take opportunities for granted,” Bergeron said. “Neither team is going to take this opportunity for granted. I do think Huntsville is going to be more hungry than they were in November because there’s something they see in front of them they’re fighting for. This team is playing extremely hard because they have the playoffs in mind. They know they have to earn their way into a playoff spot.”
The Falcons and UAH used their weekend off to rest mentally and physically. BG’s off weekend was just its second of the season, the other coming at Christmas.
UAH (9-20-3, 9-14-3-0) is 2-2-1 in its last five games. The Chargers also split at UAF and tied Tech at home.
“There’s a better vibe around the group, a more alive vibe, a more excited vibe,” Bergeron said of his team after the break. “That’s a good thing. Is that going to translate over to the game on Friday? We’ll see.”
INJURIES: BG forwards Shane Bednard (upper-body injury) and Casey Linkenheld (lower-body injury) are “definitely doubtful” for the UAH series, Bergeron said. They were injured in practice last week and didn’t practice Tuesday.
Bergeron added Bednard is closer to skating again than Linkenheld.
Bergeron also said forward Stephen Baylis is healthy after suffering an upper-body injury against Mercyhurst.
Forward Matt Meier (upper-body injury) also won’t play. He’s already had season-ending surgery.
TOO MANY: Although the Falcons are allowing just 24.1 shots per game, Bergeron said they’re still giving up too many quality scoring chances.
“I don’t think it’s consistent where it’s 20 big-time opportunities, but it’s five, six, seven Grade-A chances and breakaways,” Bergeron said. “They’re opportunities we have to stop giving people, and it’s self-inflicted.
“What teams do is take advantage of you handing them things. We’ve consistently done that over the course of this season and that needs to stop. When you get down to the playoffs, that one play could end up being the difference. We have to find ourselves on the positive side of that play more often.”
POWER PLAY: Although the BG power play was 1 of 8 against Mercyhurst, it had good chances on most of its attempts.
“We were getting second and third opportunities, and more time in the offensive zone,” Bergeron said. “We were taking what the defense gave us. With an extra guy, we want to take what they’re giving us, not forcing something that isn’t there.”
BG’s power play is sixth overall in the WCHA at 13.3 percent and eighth in league-games only at 12.9 percent. The Falcons have been inconsistent on the power play, even though they’ve changed personnel and adjusted their schemes.
“It’s been a little bit hit or miss all year long, and that’s another part of our game we’re going to need for the playoffs,” Bergeron said.
KILLING PENALTIES: The Falcon penalty-killing is 71 of 80 (88 percent) in the last 20 games, including a 29-of-31 effort in the last seven games. The two goals both came against Northern Michigan Feb. 4, one during a 5 on 3 and the other into an empty net with BG’s goalie pulled for the extra attacker.
“I do like what the PK has done,” Bergeron said. “We’ve been dominant at times. We’ve put pressure on people when we want to. We’ve given time and space when it’s called for, and we’ve taken away time and space when it’s called for. We seem to be a cohesive group of four and the goaltending has been good.”
The Falcons are eighth in the WCHA overall at 81.2 percent and fourth in league-games only at 85.6 percent.
CONSISTENCY: Goalie Chris Nell has been BG’s best and most consistent since BG returned from its Christmas break. The junior has a 1.79 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage in his last 10 games.
“He’s playing to the level he set for himself,” Bergeron said. “We, as a program, get used to his play and how good he is based on what he’s done, not something we’re making up. This is what he’s done.”
Nell was a first-team All-WCHA selection last season, posting a 1.91 goals-against and a .930 save percentage in 37 games. After stopping 76 of 91 shots in his first four starts this season, Nell has improved his goals-against average to 2.35 and save percentage to .902.
“The first half wasn’t to his level, but the second half has been to his level,” Bergeron said. “One of the big boxes going into late in the year and the playoffs is great goaltending and we can check that box. We have a goalie who is on top of his game. Great goaltending is something we need. Right now, we think we have it.”
SERIES: The Falcons are 19-4-1 all-time against UAH, including a 12-2 record in the WCHA.