Bowling Green’s goaltending is a three-way battle.
Junior Tommy Burke, sophomore Tomas Sholl and freshman Chris Nell all are vying for the No. 1 position, Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said Wednesday.
Each will play one period during Saturday’s exhibition contest against Simon Fraser University at noon in the Ice Arena.
Burke and Sholl shared the No. 1 spot last season.
Burke had a 2.43 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 28 games, while Sholl had a 2.68 goals-against and an .896 save percentage in 12 games. Burke started 27 of BG’s 39 games, including each of the final 10 games.
Nell had a 3.18 goals-against and a .910 save percentage in 43 games for the United States (Junior) Hockey League’s Chicago Steel last season.
Bergeron also expects each will start one of the team’s first three games.
BG opens the regular season with a home-and-home series against 11th-ranked Miami Oct. 10 and 12, and visits Alabama-Huntsville Oct. 17-18 for a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series.
“They’re all deserving of an opportunity,” Bergeron said. “I’m a firm believer they’re getting that every day in practice, but I want part of that opportunity and part of that chance to be in games.
“But we’re not going to paint ourselves into a corner where we give everybody three starts. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Improved goaltending is a must for the Falcons, who were in a three-way tie for fifth in the WCHA last season in overall save percentage (.903) and sixth in league-game save percentage (.905).
Minnesota State won the WCHA playoff title with Cole Huggins posting a 1.28 goals-against and a .926 save percentage. Ferris State won the regular-season title with C.J. Motte, who had a 2.17 goals-against and a .928 save percentage.
Both return this season. MSU is the coaches pick to win the WCHA this season, while Ferris was second. BG was fourth in the coaches poll.
“The two teams that won our league and playoffs had great goaltending last year,” Bergeron said. “Ours was good, but good’s not good enough, not to the level we want to be.
“Whichever goalie gives us the best chance to win every night, which means he’s playing great, he’s the one who will play.”
SO FAR: Bergeron is pleased with the team’s progress, even though official NCAA practices don’t begin until Saturday.
“Our starting point this year is different than it’s been the last four,” Bergeron said. “Our conditioning level, our strength level, the familiarity with the system piece … we’re starting at a better level than we have been the last four years.”
Starting Sept. 15, teams were allowed to be on the ice as a team for two hours per week under NCAA rules. Before that, the coaches could be on the ice with no more than four players at a time.
Once the players returned to school in mid-August, they skated on their own, and conditioned and lifted weights as a team.
“The time we’ve had, we’ve spent reminding the older guys and teaching the newer guys,” Bergeron said. “I like the fact we came back in better shape and stronger than we ever have, and I like the fact we’ve got some older people who have been in this system for a while.”
STARTING DATE: Teams have little time under NCAA rules to prepare for the season with the starting date for official practice being around the first Saturday in October each season.
That forces teams to play regular-season games or exhibitions on the starting date. This season, WCHA rivals Michigan Tech and Lake Superior are opening the season with a league series.
But Bergeron said there is no plan from the college hockey community to ask for an earlier starting date.
“From what I’ve heard from some of the guys who have been around longer than me, we start to push that direction, the NCAA will start to take time away,” said Bergeron, who is in his fifth season. “They’ll take games away. We’ll start around the same time, but we won’t play 36, 38 games. We’ll play 30. None of us want that.”
NCAA rules limit teams to 34 regular-season games, but games played in Alaska don’t count toward the 34-game maximum.
Major Canadian junior teams use the 34-game maximum against the U.S. schools in recruiting. The major Canadian junior teams play approximately twice as many games as U.S. schools.
“We’re making the most of the situation,” Bergeron said of the starting date. “You’ve got your hands tied a little bit until Oct. 4, year in year out. Everyone’s in the same boat, so we’ll deal with it.
“The two hours of team time we have will prepare these kids. I don’t think they’re in any physical harm by playing a game that first day.”
CAPTAINS: Senior forward Dan DeSalvo is BG’s captain. The Falcon coaches and players both had input on the decision.
“Danny’s evolved from his freshman year to now in terms of his work ethic, in terms of his decision and willingness to be great every day,” Bergeron said. “Some of the things we talk about all the time, he’s bought into.
“He had the confidence of every one of his teammates; that is something that played a huge role with us. He had the confidence of the group because of the improvements he’s made since day one. We feel good about the leadership.”
BG’s assistant captains are senior forward Adam Berkle, and junior forwards Brent Tate and Mark Cooper.
“Those other three are such a support group to him (DeSalvo),” Bergeron said. “The four are really close as friends, that’s a huge thing.”
NEWCOMERS: BG’s 11 freshmen are expected to have an immediate impact on the team.
“They’re going to get thrown in the fire,” Bergeron said. “Our freshmen are a little bit different than the typical freshmen. We get 20-year-old freshmen. We’ve got guys who have been away from home for a couple years, guys who are physically more mature, who are mentally and emotionally more mature, but they’re still freshmen.”
BG’s 28-player roster also has six seniors, six juniors and five sophomores.
“We’re still looking at the older guys to lead the way,” Bergeron said. “If we’re looking at freshmen leading the way, it’s going to be a long year.
“(The freshmen) are going to be in key situations. Physically, they’re ready to do that. Mentally and emotionally, we have to find out. We’ll go as far as the senior class and leadership group take us.”
OFFENSE: The Falcons were fourth in the league in scoring last season at 3.1 goals per game.
BG’s offense was impressive last season, even though Ryan Carpenter missed 24 games because of injuries, and Berkle and Tate also were out for significant stretches because they were hurt.
Sixteen of BG’s top 18 scorers return, including Berkle, Tate, Cooper and junior Ben Murphy. Sophomores Pierre-Luc Mercier, Kevin Dufour and Matt Pohlkamp also figure to contribute to the scoring.
“We’re not overly worried about the offense,” Bergeron said. “It’ll be by committee again. It won’t be one or two guys. It’s probably eight or nine deep.”
DEFENSE: Although BG was third in the WCHA last season in goals allowed (2.7), Bergeron said more improvement is needed in its team defense.
“We didn’t love the way we defended last year from a defensemen perspective,” Bergeron said.
The Falcons are hoping seniors Mike Sullivan, Connor Kucera and Rusty Hafner will rebound from inconsistent seasons as juniors.
BG’s defense will include freshmen Mark Friedman and Nolan Valleau, sophomore Sean Walker and junior Dajon Mingo, who is a full-time defenseman for the first time. He split time between defense and forward last season.
Sullivan, Kucera and Hafner were freshmen when BG won two playoff series on the road and advanced to the semifinals of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Sullivan and Kucera were regulars as rookies.
“We need Sullivan and Kucera to be great. We need Hafner to be in the conversation,” Bergeron said. “Those are seniors … We need that influence. We need that presence to help (the younger guys).”
Miami will quickly test BG’s team defense. The RedHawks’ forwards are among college hockey’s best.
“There’s no excuse not to defend,” Bergeron said. “We will defend better. It’s a matter of how quickly can we get to that level.”
PP/PK: The Falcons haven’t worked on their power play and penalty-killing units yet.
“Saturday is a dress rehearsal, and we’ll get some work at it then,” Bergeron said.
Improved and more consistent special teams are another key area for BG, which was fourth in the WCHA in power-play conversions (18.9 percent) and fifth in penalty-killing (84.8 percent).
SCHEDULE: Bergeron is pleased with BG’s nonconference schedule.
The Falcons face former CCHA rivals Miami and OSU in home-and-home series, and they’re hoping former CCHA rival Western Michigan will be on the schedule next season.
Those three teams should help boost attendance. BG, Miami and Western are Mid-American Conference members in all other sports.
“Ohio State has been outstanding in wanting us to play them,” Bergeron said. “Miami and Western Michigan are working through it, but scheduling is not easy.“