BEMIDJI, Minn. — Bowling Green is headed to a league championship game for the first time in almost three decades.
The Falcons advanced to the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs Saturday night with a 2-1 victory over regular-season league champion Bemidji State in the Sanford Center.
The victory gave the Falcons a sweep of the best-of-3 semifinal series, coupled with their 4-3 overtime victory Friday night.
The Falcons will travel to Minnesota State or Michigan Tech for the winner-take-all final next March 18. The winner receives an automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs.
BG’s last league championship-game appearance came in 1988 when it won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs to advance to the NCAA playoffs.
The Falcons, who won the 1984 NCAA championship, last competed in the national playoffs in 1990.
“It’s our first one, so it means we’ve taken a step forward,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of advancing to the championship game.
The Falcons had advanced to the single-elimination WCHA semifinals the last three seasons after winning a quarterfinal series at home. BG improved to 21-17-2 overall this season with its seventh straight victory.
BG already has achieved two of its three goals this season — earning home ice for the first round of the playoffs and winning 20 games. The team’s other goal is to win a championship.
The Falcons failed to win the WCHA regular-season championship after they were the favorite to win the league in the coaches and media polls. They finished fourth with a 14-13-1 record.
BG was even closer to last-place Alaska-Anchorage than it was to first-place Bemidji. The Falcons finished 20 points behind Bemidji in the 10-team league and 18 points ahead of UAA. Bemidji finished 22-16-3 overall.
“We haven’t been able to win (a championship) this year, and we’ve got the other two boxes checked,” Bergeron said. “We’ve got an opportunity (to win a championship) next Saturday, wherever it’s going to be.
“We’ll travel there with a mindset and a game plan and, hopefully, we’ll go there and execute at a high level. To me, it means our program took another step forward.”
The Falcons started the season 0-6-1 overall and 0-2 in the league, but they’re 21-11-1 overall since. They’ve played well in six of their last seven games, the lone exception was Friday’s OT win against Bemidji.
But the Falcons never stopped battling in that game, and Kevin Dufour finally scored in the extra period. BG’s Chris Nell had 45 saves in the game.
“Getting to the championship game means a lot,” BG senior Matt Pohlkamp said. “Coming in my freshman year, the team the year before didn’t win a lot of games and the expectations weren’t as high. Now, we’ve won a lot of games. It’s time to start winning something because our program is headed in the right direction.”
The season before Pohlkamp and his classmates arrived, BG finished 15-21-5 overall and 10-15-3 in the CCHA. They finished ninth in the 11-team league.
Bergeron is finishing his seventh season as the Falcons’ head coach, and seniors Pohlkamp, Dufour, Pierre-Luc Mercier, Sean Walker and Tomas Sholl have led the way late in the season. Sholl is one of BG’s backup goalies.
Pohlkamp scored with 16:11 remaining Saturday to break a 1-1 tie. Dufour tied the game 1-1, just 95 seconds into the second period. Walker played well on defense, while Mercier contributed at forward. Pohlkamp and Dufour are forwards.
Dufour had four goals in the series, while Pohlkamp had two goals and one assist.
BG assistant coach Ty Eigner estimated Walker, junior Mark Friedman, sophomore Adam Smith and freshman Alec Rauhauser played 80 percent of the minutes on defense Saturday night.
“For seniors, when your college career is on the line, you get that extra motivation and push,” Pohlkamp said. “It’s a whole different feeling once your season and careers are on the line. You just want to win and work that much harder to make sure you keep winning.
“It’s just a different feeling from the regular season,” Pohlkamp added. “You always want to work hard when you’re younger in college in the playoffs, but as a senior, there’s that extra drive that just comes out in the playoffs.”
Walker is BG’s captain, and Pohlkamp is the team’s assistant captain.
“You’re only going to go as far as your seniors take you,” Bergeron said. “You win a 2-1 game, an elimination game on the road and two seniors have the goals. That’s pretty good. I’m proud of the whole group. You go as far as your upperclassmen/seniors take you. Those guys were acting like it, and that’s what we need them to do.”
Now, the Falcons are on the verge of a playoff championship and a berth in the NCAAs. BG also has posted three straight 20-win seasons for the first time since 1990.
“There’s more urgency and more care in everything you do,” Pohlkamp said. “You don’t take things for granted. You go out there and that could be your last shift of your career. That’s something our seniors are really valuing right now. We want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”
The contributions of BG’s juniors — goalie Chris Nell, Friedman, and forwards Mitch McLain, Tyler Spezia, Brett D’Andrea and Jakob Reichert have complemented the seniors’ play, although Reichert didn’t play in the series. Spezia and McLain combined for three assists in the series, and were effective killing penalties.
Nell stopped 70 of 74 shots in the series, including 30 Saturday. He also helped the Falcons kill off eight of Bemidji’s nine power plays in the series.
“They’ve taken their game to a whole ’nother level,” Nell said. “They’ve upped their game. They don’t want this to be their last game. They want to go as far as they can. It’s been cool to see what they’ve been able to do down the stretch here.
“That’s a big confidence booster for the younger guys, just to see those senior leaders pick up their games at the right time,” Nell added. “Everyone is picking up their game, a great time for it to happen. If we do that next Saturday, we’re going to give ourselves a really good chance.”
After winning the WCHA’s regular-season championship, Bemidji was playing in the league semifinals for the first time.
“You have to hand it to Bowling Green,” Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said. “They played a really good game tonight. They earned this. They earned it tonight. They played well. They really showed their experience.”
Tech (21-14-7) and MSU (22-14-2) will play a third game in their series Sunday in Houghton, Michigan after MSU posted a 1-0 win Saturday. The championship game will start at 8:07 p.m. if it’s at MSU and 7:07 p.m. if it’s at Tech.
Tech is the No. 2 seed, while MSU is the No. 3 seed. The highest-remaining seed hosts the game.