College hockey’s best defensive team is next for Bowling Green.
Bemidji State is allowing just 1.87 goals per game, lowest in the nation. It’s also third nationally in penalty-killing at 87.5 percent. The Beavers are allowing just 24.1 shots on goal per game.
The Beavers’ solid team defense is complemented by the goaltending of junior Michael Bitzer, who leads the nation with a 1.65 goals-against average. He’s also fourth nationally with a .933 save percentage.
The Falcons visit Bemidji for a best-of-3 series in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs. The teams play Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. Faceoff is 8:07 p.m. for Games 1 and 2, and 6:07 p.m. for Game 3.
The Beavers, who won the WCHA’s regular-season championship, are 22-14-3 overall. They won their quarterfinal series against eighth-seeded Northern Michigan in three games, posting a 3-1 win in the deciding game.
Bemidji and Denver (1.92) are the only two teams in the country allowing two or fewer goals per game. The Beavers have allowed two or fewer goals in 29 of their 39 games.
“It starts with effort,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of solving Bemidji’s defense. “The thing we can’t do is we can’t get frustrated to where the guys start to do their own thing and beat guys 1-on-1 because that’s what exactly what Bemidji wants you to do. They’re so good defensively, they frustrate you. It’s a long series, so we can’t allow that frustration to evolve into guys going on their own page and doing their own thing where X’s and O’s are concerned.”
The Falcons’ focus for the series is to play as much as possible in their offensive zone. By doing that, they hope to create turnovers and scoring chances, and force Bemidji to take penalties.
BG is at its best when it’s controlling the puck in the offensive zone. But the Beavers are a disciplined team. They’re the seventh-least penalized team in the country and the least-penalized team in the league, averaging just 10.4 minutes per game.
The Falcons have been sharp offensively of late, scoring three or more goals in four of their last five games.
“We’ve got a game plan, and we want our guys to stick to that game plan, and know you’re going to have to be patient with that game plan,” Bergeron said. “We’ll adjust as the series goes on here and there, little things. It’s going to come down to effort. It’s going to come down to getting the puck into our offensive zone with some type of purpose and some type of plan, so we can have some offensive-zone time.”
The Falcons are 1-3 against Bemidji this season and haven’t played much of all four games in Bemidji’s defensive zone. BG scored just seven goals and totaled 97 shots in those games, four of the goals coming in a 4-2 win at home Jan. 6.
“We need to be cleaner with our exits,” Bergeron said. “We need to be cleaner through the neutral zone. Ultimately, we need to spend more time in their zone. They’re capable of defending, but we’re just not spending enough time in their zone.
“We can’t create those (scoring) chances by playing high-risk hockey, by getting into a track meet. We need to have a purpose. We need to have detail in our game. We need to have trust in the plan. If the plan needs to be tweaked, the coaches need to tweak it to put guys in the best situation possible to create those opportunities. We have plenty of people capable of scoring goals, if we give ourselves opportunities.”
STINGY: Bitzer has a 1.76 goals-against and a .958 save percentage against BG this season. He’s started 37 of Bemidji’s 39 games this season, posting a national-best six shutouts.
If the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder sees a shot, he usually makes the save.
“It’s more important than usual to get bodies to the net for sure,” Bergeron said. “We’ll put pucks on him, but it has to be accompanied with a body. There has to be somebody there to make it difficult on him. His confidence is well deserved. He’s as confident as any player out there.”
The Falcons did a good job of creating traffic in front of the net against Ferris State last weekend. BG scored five rebound goals in the series and had players going hard to the net to score goals on second and third-effort plays.
“We have to make it difficult on (Bitzer),” Bergeron said. “It just can’t be words. It has to be actions. Guys have to commit to it. Once we have bodies there, it has to be accompanied with pucks. “
STILL HOT: Falcon goalie Chris Nell continues to play well. The junior has a 1.56 goals-against and a .943 save percentage in his 13 games since returning from the Christmas break. He’s 8-5 in those games.
Nell stopped 54 of 58 shots in BG’s sweep of Ferris, allowing just two even-strength goals. He also helped the Falcons kill off seven of Ferris’ nine power-play attempts, including the final 4:43 of a major penalty during a 6-1 win in Game 1.
“Nell has been a rock back there these last couple weeks,” BG freshman defenseman Alec Rauhauser said. “He’s definitely playing like he did last year. Just having him back there, if you make a mistake, you know he’s going to be there for you most of the time. The guys have a lot of confidence in him to make plays. He’s everything to our (defense corps).”
Nell, a first-team All-WCHA honoree last season, has a 2.18 goals-against and a .913 save percentage in 31 games this season.
THE LEAD: The Falcons have won five straight games to improve to 19-17-2 overall. They haven’t trailed in any of those games, and they’ve scored the game’s first goal in all five of those contests.
“It helps big time,” Bergeron said of playing with the lead. “We’ve proven we can play without it (the lead), but it’s much easier to play with it. It almost makes you feel like you’ve got a little bit of a cushion, a little bit of a buffer because you are winning. Our guys play pretty well with the lead. Playing with the lead, you have momentum, you have confidence. You can hear guys reminding each other on the bench, ‘we’ve got the lead, let’s act like it.’”
Before the Falcons’ winning streak, they hadn’t scored a first-period goal in seven straight games.
“You have the lead, you don’t have to worry about making a mistake,” BG senior captain and defenseman Sean Walker said. “You can just go out there and play the game, and be comfortable and confident.”
OFFENSE: After going three straight games without scoring against Ferris Jan. 28 and NMU Feb. 3-4, the Falcons have scored 23 goals in their last five games. The production has taken some of the pressure off Nell and BG’s team defense. The Falcons are 15-2-2 when scoring three or more goals in a game and 15-5 when allowing two or fewer goals.
“It makes everyone more comfortable when you’re scoring,” Walker said. “Nobody is scared to make a mistake. Everyone can go out there relaxed and play, that helps our game.”
“We didn’t change anything,” Bergeron said. “I don’t think guys had lost confidence. You start to squeeze the stick a little bit, but the confidence was there. Goaltenders were beating us, making big-time saves.
“We defend at a pretty high level, but things happen, and we’re playing against good players, and goals happen,” Bergeron added. “We think if we can score three or more (goals) a game, we’re giving ourselves a pretty good chance to win.”
WE KNOW YOU: This weekend’s series marks at least the 10th and 11th games between the teams since the start of last season.
The teams played five times last season. BG swept at Bemidji in December and then won a quarterfinal series at home in March.
“We know what to expect from this team, and they know what to expect from us,” Bergeron said.
HONOREE: BG’s Matt Pohlkamp was named the WCHA’s offensive player of the week. The senior right wing had two goals and four assists against Ferris, including two goals and two assists in Game 1.
Pohlkamp also played well defensively, posting an on-ice rating of +4 in the series. He and junior linemates Mitch McLain and Tyler Spezia usually were matched against Ferris’ top line in the series.
INJURIES: BG forwards Matt Meier (upper body) and Casey Linkenheld (lower body) aren’t in the discussion to play this weekend because of injuries, Bergeron said.
TRAVEL: The Falcons will travel via sleeper bus to Bemidji, leaving Wednesday night around 7:30 and returning immediately after the deciding game in the series. BG is scheduled to skate in the Sanford Center Thursday night and Friday morning.
SERIES: The Falcons are 9-7-1 all-time against Bemidji, including a 9-5-1 record as WCHA members. The teams played a nonleague series during the 2010-11 season.
NEXT: The BG-Bemidji winner faces the winner of second-seeded Michigan Tech and third-seeded Minnesota State in the WCHA playoff championship game March 18. The final is a single-game, winner-take-all affair.
The championship game will be played at the highest remaining seed. Bemidji will host the game if it beats BG. If the Falcons win, they’ll visit the winner of the Tech-MSU series for the championship game.
The playoff champion receives an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs.
NO TV: The BG-Bemidji series will not be televised, but the games will available online at WCHA.tv for a fee.