HOUGHTON, Michigan — Bowling Green fell painfully shy of a league championship and a berth in the NCAA Playoffs Saturday night.
But the Falcons still enjoyed being part of the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs at Michigan Tech.
The game was played in an electric atmosphere before a capacity crowd of 4,466 in Tech’s MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
Tech’s fans came early, cheered loudly from start to finish and were invited to celebrate with their team’s players and coaches on the ice after the Huskies’ 3-2 victory in double overtime.
Shane Hanna’s breakaway goal, 6:35 into the second overtime, gave the Huskies the win after the Falcons stormed back from a 2-0 deficit in the third period to force the extra period.
The Falcons tied the game on goals from Joe McKeown at 6:36 and Matt Pohlkamp 24 seconds later, But Hanna broke BG’s heart by scoring after a poor line change by the Falcons.
BG and Tech treated the crowd, which included a small, but vocal group of Falcon supporters, to an action-packed, end-to-end contest. The Falcons and the Huskies combined for 68 shots on goal, plenty of great scoring chances and physical play.
And, of course, it had drama, excitement and Hanna’s terrific goal to win it following a perfect pass from teammate Matt Roy.
The game completed the first season of the league’s new playoff format that saw all three rounds of the playoffs played at campus sites.
The previous three seasons had the best-of-3 quarterfinals played at campus sites, with the winners advancing to the WCHA Final Five for the single-elimination semifinals and championship game.
The change was made last spring because of poor attendance at three Final Fives: 2014 and 2016 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2015.
The cost to play in those buildings was another reason for the change.
And WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson was all smiles after the game.
“That’s what a championship is supposed to be like,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said after the game. “It was great. It was a celebration of a season. We were hoping as a league and we were hoping as coaches that it would be like this.”
“I’ve been around college hockey for 35 years,” said Tech coach Mel Pearson, who is in his sixth season. Those 35 seasons included 23 seasons as an assistant at Michigan before taking the job at Tech. “I’ve won national championship games in overtime. I’ve lost them in overtime. This game had everything those games did. It had everything you wanted. Just a great display of college hockey for the WCHA.”
Attendance in Grand Rapids and St. Paul consisted of friends and family, and a few concerned others.
Those buildings are home to pro teams — the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League and the Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League. And the size of those arenas and their puny crowds created a morgue-like atmosphere.
The Xcel Energy Center has a capacity of 17,954, while the Griffins have a capacity of 10,834.
The Falcons had lost in all three of the previous semifinals, twice in Grand Rapids and once in St. Paul. Before the format change, the Final Five was scheduled to return to St. Paul this season.
“That’s what a championship is supposed to be like, not in front of 500 fans in one of these huge buildings,” Bergeron said. “That doesn’t have the energy and the atmosphere this place had tonight.
“We go to those buildings the last three years, and you’re playing in front of 500 people,” BG senior captain Sean Walker said. “There’s just no energy in those buildings, even if those people are getting up and hyping it as much as they can.”
The game virtually became a sellout last Monday, only 24 hours after Tech learned it would be hosting the Falcons in the championship game. The last of the standing-room-only tickets were sold late in the week. Tickets on Craigslist.com were going for $200.
Tech’s students began to arrive at the arena Saturday around 3 p.m., four hours before the 7:07 p.m. faceoff. And the student section inside the arena was filled even before the Huskies took the ice for the pre-game warmup at approximately 6:30.
“You can’t ask for a better crowd,” Hanna said. “ Usually, there’s 50 students in their section for the warmup. Tonight, it was filled when we came out for the warmup. You can’t ask for a better atmosphere. It was awesome for a championship game.”
“You can’t say enough about the crowd,” Pearson said. “My hat’s off to the WCHA for coming up with this format. This is about the experience for the student-athlete. It was incredible. I hope everybody enjoyed it.”
Now, BG and the other WCHA schools are looking to host the championship game in the future.
“I hope the Bowling Green team and their fans enjoyed the atmosphere,” Pearson said. “I know they’re not happy with the result, but I’m trying to put our team in that position, if we’re at Bowling Green or Bemidji State or Minnesota State and playing in that kind of atmosphere. That’s all you want. You want to go somewhere you’re playing in front of a packed house with something on the line.”
The higher seeds host all three rounds of the playoffs. The top four teams host first-round series. WCHA regular-season champion Bemidji and second-place Tech hosted the semifinals. Tech hosted the championship game after fourth-place BG swept its semifinal series at Bemidji and the Huskies beat third-place Minnesota State in the third and deciding game of their series.
“It’s great the way the format is set up,” Walker said. “Obviously, we’d like to be the home team. That’s huge to have your fan support coming into a championship game. The format is definitely better for the league.”
BG easily would have sold out the Slater Family Ice Arena for the championship game had it been the host.
“All 10 teams in the league had the opportunity to earn home ice throughout the playoffs,” Bergeron said. “Michigan Tech earned the right to play at home. Their fans showed up and said thank you for earning the right to play at home. We’re going to back you. That’s great.”
The Big Ten Conference will play all three rounds of its playoffs at campus sites next season. The entire tournament the last three seasons has rotated between the Xcel Energy Center and Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
“I like the format,” Pearson said. “We had to earn our way to this game. We got some help along the way from Bowling Green with Bemidji. It’s only going to grow when you see what happened here.
“I know if (the championship game) was at Bowling Green, the place would have been crazy, too,” Pearson added. “This is a good thing, and you’ll see more leagues go to this.”
The new format also makes the regular-season even more important. Only the top eight teams in the league make the playoffs. Now, the teams have to earn the right to host playoff games.
“You have to earn everything you get in our league,” Pearson said.
RECAP: The teams traded scoring chances during the first two periods before BG dominated the third period to tie the game.
“There was plenty of time left,” Bergeron said of BG’s third-period comeback. “We’re either going to keep playing or we’re not. Those kids kept playing. The game wasn’t over. It wasn’t pleading and please keep playing. It was keep going. The guys did exactly that. I didn’t expect any less from our group.”
The Falcons finished the game with a 38-30 edge in shots, including an 11-2 margin in the third period. The Huskies had 13 shots in the 26:35 of overtime, compared to 10 for the Falcons. Both teams had great scoring chances long before Hanna won it.
Tech came back and played well during the overtimes. The game lasted three hours, 40 minutes and ended at 10:47 p.m.
“It’s good we had a chance to reset,” Hanna said. “We played pretty well from the first overtime through the second one. Everyone relaxed and started playing their game.”
Hanna took Roy’s lead pass from Tech’s defensive zone through the middle of the ice and sent a laser over the glove hand of BG’s Chris Nell, just inside the top right corner of the net. Hanna received the pass just outside BG’s defensive blue line.
“What a great goal,” Pearson said.
PROMOTION: McKeown started the game on BG’s fourth line, but was promoted to the third line for the third period and the two overtimes. The Falcons shortened their bench to three lines get their best players more ice time.
McKeown saw limited ice time during the first two periods on the fourth line before being moved to a line with high-scoring teammates Tyler Spezia and Mitch McLain. BG went with 10 forwards in the third period. McKeown also was used to help the team rest some of its best players.
“He was playing pretty well in the shifts he got during the first two periods,” Bergeron.
McKeown then scored BG’s first goal in the third period, his second goal in his last three games. He was in front of the net to finish off a great shift with McLain and Spezia. The three generated sustained pressure on the offensive zone, resulting in the goal.
McKeown also scored in BG’s series-clinching victory at home against Ferris State March 4 in the Ice Arena. The 6-foot-3, 204-pounder finished the season with two goals and one assist in 20 games.
JOIN US: After Tech finished its initial celebration, received the Broadmoor Cup and took a team photo, Pearson encouraged the team’s fans to come on the ice and share in the celebration. And many of the fans did.
Pearson and the Huskies did the same in 2015 when they won the McNaughton Cup, presented to the WCHA’s regular-season champion.
“We’re part of the community. Any time you can share (a championship) with the community, we want to share it with them,” Pearson said. “ We wanted to get them back down on the ice with us.”
NCAA: Tech, 23-14-7 overall, will face top-seeded and top-ranked Denver (29-7-4) in the first round of the NCAA Playoffs Saturday at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
BG finished 21-18-2.
NEXT: The Falcons’ 28-game WCHA schedule next season includes four games each (two home, two away) against Tech, Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State and Lake Superior.
BG also will play two-game series at home against Bemidji State and Alaska (Fairbanks), and on the road against Ferris State and Northern Michigan.