BEMIDJI, Minn. — Bowling Green played well during the final 50 minutes Saturday night.
The Falcons also skated with poise and confidence.
They spotted Bemidji State the game’s first goal before rallying for a 2-1 victory to finish a sweep of their best-of-3 series in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
BG controlled and, at times, even dominated the final 2½ periods with its staple — a physical, puck-possession game in the offensive zone. The Falcons usually kept their defensive zone clean after turning too many pucks over early in the game.
And when the Falcons broke down, Chris Nell was sharp in goal with 25 saves.
BG was going for a sweep of the WCHA’s regular-season champion after Friday’s 4-3 overtime victory. The Falcons were out-shot Friday by a 48-34 margin, but Nell’s work kept his team in the game.
“Overall, we played better tonight than last night,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “Full marks to Bemidji. But I just thought we could play better than we did (Friday). Our guys thought we could play better.”
The Beavers — desperate to force a third and deciding game Sunday night — came out hard during the first 10 minutes. Gerry Fitzgerald’s breakaway goal gave Bemidji a 1-0 lead, just 3:16 into the game after the Falcons turned the puck over at their defensive blue line.
Bemidji had a chance to increase its lead to 2-0 just over five minutes later, but Nell used his left pad to stop a short-handed breakaway.
The Falcons eventually started to play well after that. BG finally tied the game on Kevin Dufour’s goal only 95 seconds into the second period and took the lead on Matt Pohlkamp’s goal with 16:11 to play in the game.
“Their first goal was either going to be break our back and put us on our heels the whole night or we were going to gather ourselves and act like we expected,” Bergeron said. “It was the latter. We stopped turning pucks over. We started to get into a game.”
“We expected they were going to come out with a big push because their season was on the line, but our guys didn’t give up, and we battled so hard,” Pohlkamp said. “We found a way to win. That’s what you have to do at this time of the year, just find a way to get the job done. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
The Falcons also had a chance to crack in the third period. They failed to score during a five-minute power play with 15:46 left in the game and then took a penalty just 54 seconds after the major ended. But BG killed off the penalty to protect its one-goal lead. That Beaver power play ended just 50 seconds into the advantage because Bemidji was called for hooking.
Bemidji then pulled goalie Michael Bitzer for the extra attacker with just over one minute left in the game. Nell made two point-blank saves in the final minute, and covered the puck with 5.1 seconds remaining.
BG’s Mitch McLain won two defensive-zone faceoffs in the final minute, while Matt Pohlkamp blocked two shots.
“We’ve been in this situation for four years in a row, and tonight we acted like it,” said Bergeron, whose team had lost in single-elimination semifinals the last three seasons. “We didn’t let one bad play (the Bemidji goal) throw us sideways. We didn’t let one bad 10-minute stretch throw us sideways. We kept playing and going north. That’s the ups and downs of the game, especially on the road, especially in a situation where your opponent has their back against the wall. You know you’re going to get a hard push, and that’s what we got. The way our guys kept playing the game the right way, and stayed poised and stayed focused which means they’re listening because that’s what we talk about every day.”
The Falcons swept Bemidji after losing three of their four regular-season meetings with the Beavers. Bemidji posted a 2-1, 4-1 sweep to start the season. The teams then split a Jan. 5-6 series in Slater Family Ice Arena. BG posted a 4-2 win in the series finale after Bemidji earned a 2-1 win in the first game.
“I’m proud of our group,” Bergeron said. “Sweeping anybody at the college level is a big accomplishment. Then, you add playoffs. Then, you add the league champions. You had the team that beat us three times out of four this year … very proud of our group.”
OFFENSE: The Falcons held a 32-26 edge in shots, and generated sustained pressure by playing in Bemidji’s defensive zone. That was in contrast to Friday when they defended for a large part of the game. Bemidji is second nationally in goals allowed, 1.93 per game.
“We talked about how heavy (physical) of a team they are, and they showed how heavy they are tonight,” Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said. “There wasn’t a lot of ice. There wasn’t a lot of space. We had a hard time getting going.”
“That was the key for us,” Pohlkamp said. “If we can get the puck into their zone, that’s our biggest thing. Once we get in the offensive zone, we can skate, pass the puck to the point, get pucks to the net. There’s not a whole lot they were doing to stop us.”
The Falcons had a 16-8 edge in shots during the final period. Each team had nine shots in the second period, although BG held the edge in play.
“The second period on, they dictated play,” Serratore said.
‘”It was fun to watch,” Nell said.
Serratore also praised the Falcons for the way they defended and for the way they stopped his team’s transition game.
“The last period, they were ripping everything out (out of the defensive zone),” Serratore said. “We couldn’t get our forecheck going. It’s hard to get a forecheck going against them because once they get a puck, it’s up (and out of their zone). You want to get your transition game going against these guys, and we never got our transition game going. They were tough to play against. We couldn’t get a rhythm going.”
The Beavers’ best offensive pressure came in the final minute of the game after they pulled Bitzer for a 6-on-5 advantage.
STATS: Sean Walker led the Falcons with seven shots on goal, while Tyler Spezia and Pohlkamp both had five, and Mitch McLain, Dufour and Joe McKeown each had three.
The defense pair of Mark Friedman and Adam Smith both had an on-ice rating of +2.
The pairings of Friedman and Smith, and Walker and Alec Rauhauser seemingly never left the ice in the series.
“The minutes those guys are eating is crazy,” Bergeron said.
WINNER: Pohlkamp scored off a 2-on-2 rush. His shot from the bottom of the right circle handcuffed Bitzer.
“I was just trying to put it on net and get a rebound,” Pohlkamp said. “It wasn’t the best shot in the world, but somehow it squeaked through. That was our key all weekend, get as many shots as we could because we know he’s a really good goalie. The more shots you have, the more opportunities you have to score.”
EQUALIZER: The Falcons tied the game on Dufour’s fourth goal of the series early in the second period. Friedman threaded a perfect pass from the right point through to Dufour, who was alone in front. Dufour faked Bitzer and scored from the left side of the crease.
“That was huge,” Pohlkamp said. “It would have been tough for us to be down 2-0. Once we got it to 1-1, there was no way we were losing this game. We were pushing the whole way. Luckily, we got that one goal.”
GOALTENDING: Nell was outstanding Saturday after allowing two soft goals Friday. The junior allowed just one goal during the final 95:38 of the series. He stopped 70 of 74 shots in the series and helped BG kill off eight of Bemidji’s nine power plays.
“Chris was good. Chris is good,” Bergeron said. “We won the goaltending tonight.”
Nell has a 2.15 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in 33 games this season. He’s allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of his 15 games during the second half, posting a 1.69 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage in that span.
Bitzer stopped just 60 of 66 shots in the series, but still leads the nation with a 1.71 goals-against and six shutouts. He’s fourth with a .932 save percentage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons were 0 of 4 on the power play Saturday, while Bemidji was 0 of 3.
The Beavers had a 63-second 4-on-3 power play in the second period with the game tied 1-1, but couldn’t score. Bemidji also failed to score on three 4-on-3s during Game 1.
“The turning point was we didn’t convert on that 4-on-3,” Serratore said. “Last night and tonight, we had an extended 4-on-3, and we don’t convert, and that’s on us. These types of games, you need to come through in a situation like that and, it just didn’t happen.”
In the series, the BG power play was 0 of 6 and Bemidji was 1 of 9.
Bemidji’s penalty-killing is second nationally at 88 percent, and its power play is second in the league at 18.9 percent.
PK: The BG penalty-killing is 105-of-117 (89.7 percent) in its last 26 games, including a 59-of-64 effort (92.2 percent) during the last 13 games.
STREAKING: The Falcons’ seven-game winning streak is their longest since the 1987-88 season when they also won seven in a row.
HEARTBREAKER: The series loss brought Bemidji’s season to a disappointing end. After being picked for sixth place in the coaches and media polls, the Beavers finished 22-16-3 overall and 20-6-2 in the WCHA. They won the league by 10 points over Michigan Tech.
Losing in overtime Friday hurt Bemidji and might have been one of the key points in the series. The Beavers played well and easily could have won the game. They out-shot BG by a 48-34 margin and held two one-goal leads before BG sent the game into overtime in the third period.
“That was a big loss last night,” Serratore said.
NO TV: The championship game of the WCHA playoffs will not be televised, although the game will be streamed for a fee on WCHA.tv.