HOUGHTON, Michigan — Bowling Green suffered a heartbreaking end to its season Saturday night in the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
The Falcons lost a 3-2 double-overtime decision to Michigan Tech.
Shane Hanna’s breakaway goal 6:35 into the second extra period gave Tech the win and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Playoffs before a capacity crowd of 4,466 in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
BG rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period to force overtime, tying the game on goals from Joe McKeown at 6:36 and Matt Pohlkamp 24 seconds later.
But Hanna’s goal ended BG’s hopes of earning its first trip to the NCAAs since 1990. The Falcons, who won the national championship in 1984, were playing in a league-championship game for the first time since 1988 when they won the playoff title in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
BG and Tech treated the raucous crowd to a terrific game that lasted just under four hours. The three-hour, 40-minute contest went 26:35 into overtime.
The Falcons finished with a 38-30 edge in shots, and both teams had plenty of chances to win earlier in the extra period. Falcon goalie Chris Nell finished with 27 saves, while Tech’s Angus Redmond made 36 saves
BG finished 21-18-2 overall, while Tech improved to 23-14-7. The Huskies are headed to the NCAAs for the second time in the last three seasons. They received an at-large berth in 2015.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said. “I’m extremely proud we found a way to keep fighting (after we went down 2-0). That resiliency didn’t show its head enough this year. The last couple months it did.”
The Falcons saw their seven-game winning streak ended, their last loss coming Feb. 4 at home against Northern Michigan. The seven-game winning streak was their longest since the 1987-88 season when they also won seven straight. BG won 16 straight during the 1986-87 season.
“My heart goes out to (our players),” Bergeron said. “You want to give them the celebration and give them the feel good. It’s not our time.”
THE WINNER: Hanna’s goal came after Tech caught BG on a bad line change that left the Falcons with just three skaters in the play and their fourth skater was just coming off the bench. The teams were skating 4-on-4 because of matching minor penalties.
Hanna took Matt Roy’s lead pass in stride behind the BG defense and just outside the BG blue line. The senior defenseman and second-team All-WCHA honoree beat Nell with a laser over the glove high to the top, right corner of the net. Roy had possession of the puck at the top circles in his defensive zone and threaded a perfect pass up through the middle of the ice.
“We had good control of the puck, and I saw they were changing,” Hanna said when asked by coach Mel Pearson and the media why he was hanging out at the offensive blue line. “I hopped up, hoping for something to happen, and Roy found me.”
Hanna’s goal was his eighth of the season and 21st of his career.
“I do that a lot in our shootouts when we do it on Thursday in practice, and I went with what I knew,” Hanna said of his shot.
MORE HANNA: Hanna didn’t play in the first overtime because of an undisclosed injury.
“If it was a normal game, he wouldn’t have played,” Pearson said. “He’s a tough, tough individual.”
“I was excited to get out there and contribute, and it worked out,” Hanna said.
COMEBACK: The Falcons played well early, and the game eventually settled into a thrilling exchange of scoring chances through the end of the second period.
Tech took its 2-0 lead in the second period on goals from Joel L’Esperance at 4:53 and Jake Jackson at 12:25. But the Falcons rallied with a dominant third period, including an 11-2 edge in shots on goal.
Tech didn’t have a shot on goal in the third period for the first 16:24. BG played most of the period in its offensive zone.
“We knew this potentially could be our last game,” BG senior captain Sean Walker said. “We had ample opportunities to keep scoring. We knew if we stuck to our game plan we were going to score some goals. We had tons of chances.
“Your season is on the line and everyone realizes that,” Walker added. “You have to go out there and make a push. We had a decent push and just couldn’t finish.”
The Falcons solved Tech twice, even though the Huskies are fourth nationally in goals allowed (2.16 per game) and second in shots allowed (23.4 per game).
“My hats off to Bowling Green,” Pearson said. “They played one heck of a third period. They really had us on our heels. We were lucky to get out of that period tied and regroup going into overtime.”
BG’s two best chances in overtime resulted in a glove save by Redmond and a shot that hit the post.
“Going into the first overtime, and even the end of the third period, we were buzzing,” Walker said. “We had tons of opportunities, even in the overtime, where we could have ended the game.”
THE GOALS: The Falcons’ first goal came from in front when McKeown finished off an excellent shift with linemates Tyler Spezia and McLain. McKeown scored from in front of the net.
Pohlkamp knocked down Redmond’s clearing attempt in the right corner, skated to the net and back-handed puck into the net falling down from the right side of the crease.
“They gave us more than we could handle,” Pearson said. “The worst lead in hockey is a two-goal lead. We just sat back, but they pushed us. They came hard. We were on our heels. The first goal gives a team momentum. It gives them a spark.
“Once they got that one, you could just see the momentum really shift,” Pearson added. “They’re a good team. They have what it takes to win, and you could see that tonight.”
FATIGUE: The coaches and players on both teams said they were cramping during the overtimes. Both teams went with three lines/10 forwards during that time, and even limited the ice time of some of their defensemen,
“We had tons of guys who were cramping up, so the pace slowed down a little bit,” Walker said.
“Overtime is a tough thing because you want it so bad,” Bergeron said. “They’re playing so hard for each other and their school. Unfortunately, somebody had to lose. Guys were getting tired. Then you start to break down mentally.”
PENALTIES: The teams played a physical contest, but only six penalties were called. All of the penalties were minors, three to each team. Both teams were 0 of 1 on the power play. There were two sets of matching minors.
THE LEAD: L’Esperance opened the scoring with a 2-on-1 rush after BG turned the puck over just inside the blue line. The Falcons’ also did a poor job of backchecking and failed to pick up L’Esperance.
Jackson’s goal came from just above goal line on the left-wing side. The shot went in just inside the right post. He originally came in from the right point and skated around a BG defenseman who was going to block his shot.
But Jackson faked the shot, maintained possession and waited for Nell to go down to the ice.
“I didn’t see (Nell) bite so hard,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t going to shoot, but I saw the open net and I decided to shoot.”
Jackson gained possession after his pass earlier during the possession hit a Falcon player and went back to him. The two BG defenders on the play then collided.
REMEMBER ME: Gary Kruzich, the starting goalie on BG’s national championship team, is in his first season as the director of athletic partnerships and ticket sales.
“I’m definitely rooting for the Huskies,” Kruzich said prior to the championship game. “But I’m human so there are mixed emotions. Just looking up in the stands and seeing orange brings back a lot of great memories of my time in BG.
“The fans were great at BG. We sold out almost every game the four years I was there. The fans were awesome. The team unity was great my freshman year, and that was one of the reasons we ended up winning the national championship.”
Kruzich finished his career as the NCAA career leader in victories in 88, although the record has since been broken. He was a first-team All-American his final two seasons and remains 10th in career save percentage at BG (.889).
Kruzich started his position at Tech in October.
FAREWELL: The loss ended the career of BG’s five seniors — Walker; forwards Pohlkamp, Pierre-Luc Mercier and Kevin Dufour; and goalie Tomas Sholl.
The Falcons were 84-58-19 overall and 60-49-13 in the league the last four seasons. All five have grade-point averages of 3.0 or better, and will graduate in May.
“They’ve been an outstanding group for us,” Bergeron said. “We would have liked to have ended the season on more a positive note with a championship because this group deserved it.”
After losing twice to NMU at home Feb. 3-4, BG won those seven straight games to reach the 20-win mark for the third straight season. The Falcons also won a first-round playoff series for the seventh straight season.
“They made a decision during the course of the second half of the year what was going on wasn’t good enough, and they were going to change it, and they led the way in doing in that,” Bergeron said. “I’m extremely proud of them.”
LINEUP: The Falcons’ lineup consisted of 12 forwards and six defensemen, instead of the 11 forwards and seven defensemen they’ve been using of late.
Forward Jakob Reichert and defenseman Jacob Dalton were healthy scratches, while forwards Matt Meier (upper body) and Casey Linkenheld (lower body) remained out with injuries.
TRAVEL: BG flew to Houghton via charter Friday morning and was scheduled to return home Sunday morning.