Bowling Green had a challenging season.
But a season filled with positives and negatives still finished as a step forward for the Falcons, coach Chris Bergeron said.
BG finished 21-18-2 overall and advanced to the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs. The Falcons have had four straight winning seasons overall and in league play, including three straight 20-win seasons overall.
The Falcons also played in a league-championship game for the first time since 1988 when they won the playoff championship of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
BG won at least one playoff series for the seventh straight season, and it’s the only school in the country to do that during that span.
“As we’re sitting here today, the season is positive as a step forward,” Bergeron said. “It’s not as big of a step forward as I would have liked. We’re on the cusp of winning a championship, but it’s time. It’s time for us to win a championship. We’ve been resilient. We’re a resilient group. We’re a not-going-to-quit group. That’s great.”
But the season didn’t start easy.
Chris Nell’s dad, Rick, died unexpectedly Sept. 12, and the first-team All-WCHA goalie last season had a difficult first half. And high-scoring forward Brandon Hawkins quit the team on Sept. 30, the day before BG’s exhibition contest.
Nell, a junior, eventually had a terrific second half. Hawkins’ departure forced the Falcons to put some forwards in positions they may not have been ready for. Hawkins had 29 goals and 29 assists in two seasons with the Falcons.
The Falcons entered the season as the coaches and media pick to win the WCHA, but they started 0-6-1 overall and 0-2 in the league.
“That’s the adversity you deal within a college hockey year or within a college athletics year,” said Bergeron, who will start his eighth season in the fall. “I understand some of these expectations I created, but that’s what we came here to do. These are big things. These aren’t nothing. These are big deals. It took us some time to figure out the new normal. It took some time for some individuals to get to their game and playing at the level they had set for themselves.”
BG was still 14-17-2 overall and 12-13-1 in the league entering the final three weekends of the regular season. The Falcons finished fourth in the league with a 14-13-1 record after sweeping ninth-place Alabama-Huntsville to finish the regular season.
The Falcons won seven straight games before a 3-2 double-overtime loss at Michigan Tech in the WCHA title game before a raucous crowd of 4,466. The defeat ended BG’s hopes of earning its first NCAA playoff berth since 1990.
The Falcons were inconsistent all season until their late-season win streak.
“At times this year, if you asked me what this year is about, was it negative or positive? It’s probably more negative than positive,” Bergeron said. “Now, as we sit here right now, at 21-18-2, lost in the finals in a double-overtime game in front of 4,600 people, how is it not (positive)?”
Graduation will hit the Falcons hard with the loss of forwards Kevin Dufour, Pierre-Luc Mercier and Matt Pohlkamp; and defenseman and captain Sean Walker. Nell and defenseman Mark Friedman recently decided to forego their senior seasons to sign NHL contracts.
But the Falcons return plenty of offense and defense. They return nine of the 12 forwards who played at Tech and 13 forwards overall, including juniors Mitch McLain and Tyler Spezia, who combined for 25 goals and 38 assists.
The major question is goaltending with the loss of Nell, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in goals-against average (2.07), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (11).
“Some how, some way, next year we have to focus more on the everyday to find a level of consistency which will come down to our leadership,” Bergeron said. “It was a positive year. Nobody has higher expectations than me. How do you say it wasn’t (a positive year)? We were involved in a championship game. We did ourselves proud. We played hard. We didn’t get the results we wanted, but we did ourselves properly.
“There’s lots to be proud of. We’re a consistent program again. A good year is 20 wins, and a great year is 20 wins and some type of championship. We were in a position to earn that (championship) and fell short. I look at this year as a positive. Anybody who doesn’t is not being real. There’s an opponent fighting back, fighting hard to have something to say about it. Is it exactly what we wanted? No. Is it a bad year? Absolutely not.”
GOALTENDING: The Falcons will be young in goal next season with sophomore Ryan Bednard, and freshmen Eric Dop and Brett Rich.
Bednard was expected to push Nell for playing time, but played in only seven games. He finished with a 2.70 goals-against and an .882 save percentage after stopping just 5 of 9 shots in his first start at Western Michigan Oct. 15.
Bednard didn’t play again until Nov. 26 when he made 11 saves in a 3-0 victory over Alaska-Anchorage. The game was the start of a six-game span in which Bednard had a 1.74 goals-against and a .917 percentage.
But Bednard allowed two soft goals in a 5-3 loss at Minnesota State Jan. 14 and didn’t play again. He also had off-ice issues, including a missed team meeting at Ferris State Jan. 28.
Bednard was a seventh-round draft pick of the NHL’s Florida Panthers in 2015.
“Ryan has all of the potential in the world, but potential doesn’t get you where you want to be without a decision that you want to be a player,” Bergeron said. “ If he wants to be a professional, then, hopefully, he takes that step and becomes an everyday guy.”
Dop has a 2.84 goals-against and a .908 save percentage in 29 games this season with the United States (Junior) Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm.
Rich is a senior at Bowling Green High School. He was a first-team All-Ohio selection this season, posting a 1.87 goals-against and a .937 save percentage in 29 games.
“We’re totally confident in our goaltending,” Bergeron said. “It’s unproven. But time after time, in this league and other leagues in college, first-year guys, second-year guys can take teams to where they’re supposed to go. We have no reason to believe that’s not going to happen here.”
DEFENSE: The loss of Walker and Friedman leaves a big void on defense. The two played well defensively and combined for 18 goals and 32 assists.
But the Falcons return sophomore Adam Smith and freshman Alec Rauhauser, who were paired with Friedman and Walker, respectively, late in the season. BG relied heavily on its top two pairings late in the season.
Sophomores Connor McDonald and Chris Pohlkamp, and freshman Jacob Dalton also return after seeing significant playing time.
“We’ve been planning for this. That’s the way college works,” Bergeron said of the loss of Walker and Friedman. “It’s not the NHL where we’ve got guys for 15 years. We know what the deal is. We’ve been planning for this. Are they two big losses on (defense)? Absolutely. That’s what happens in college.”
Smith, Rauhauser, McDonald and Pohlkamp figure to be BG’s top four defensemen to start next season.
“From a defending, penalty-kill perspective, you look at McDonald, Pohlkamp, Smith, Rauhauser as four guys to really lean on going into next year,” Bergeron said.
The offense generated by Walker and Friedman will have to picked up by the team’s returning forwards, Bergeron said.
“The points are going to have to come from more guys internally,” Bergeron said. “We need Spezia, McLain, (Brett) D’Andrea to be what they were and maybe better versions of what they were this year next year. Lukas Craggs, Freddie Letourneau, Stephen Baylis and Johnny Schilling are going to need to do more offensively. That’s all there is to it.”
Dufour, Mercier and Matt Pohlkamp totaled 37 goals and 35 assists this season.
NEWCOMERS: The Falcons are still finalizing their freshmen class for next season. Five players are definitely joining the team and others who have already signed national letters of intent to attend BG will be added, Bergeron said.
In addition to Rich, the other freshmen next season are forwards Connor Ford and Cameron Wright, and defenseman Carson Musser and Justin Wells. Justin Wells is the son of Jeff Wells, a second-team All-American defenseman at BG in 1994.
“There will be more. We just don’t know who it is,” Bergeron said.