Bowling Green’s defense corps has offered an impressive response to a major challenge this season.
After being stung by two late defections, the Falcon defensemen have played well.
BG is allowing just 1.84 goals per game — best in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and eighth-best nationally. The Falcons also are giving up only 1.73 gpg in league play, best in the WCHA.
The Falcons, ranked as high as 12th nationally, are 11-3-5 overall and 8-2-4 in the league entering the Christmas break.
Junior Sean Walker, sophomore Mark Friedman, and freshmen Chris Pohlkamp and Connor McDonald have combined to average more 90 of the 120 minutes on defense in each game this season.
Walker, who is BG’s captain, and Friedman are averaging more than 25 minutes per game individually. McDonald and Pohlkamp are playing more than 20 minutes per game.
Walker, Friedman and McDonald have played every game, and Pohlkamp has played all but one. He missed BG’s series finale Dec. 5 against Minnesota State because of a shoulder injury.
Sophomore Braden Pears has played 11 games, while senior Jose Delagdillo has played 10 and red-shirt senior Dajon Mingo has played nine. Pears has played well of late, skating in the last seven games.
“Definitely, it’s an indication of how well we’ve defended and how well our defense has played,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of the team’s goals-against. “We’ve defended hard. We’ve been trying to limit time and space on the ice, which ultimately helps you defend. Our guys have done a good job of that.”
The defense has been aided by the goaltending of sophomore Chris Nell and senior Tommy Burke.
Nell is fourth nationally with a 1.46 goals-against average and fifth with a .943 save percentage in 16 games. Burke has a 3.00 goals-against and a .900 save percentage in four games, but has a 3-1 record. Nell’s record is 8-2-5.
“It talks about our goaltending, too,” Bergeron said. “But it talks about overall where the (defense) has been in terms of their overall play.”
The Falcons were left with only seven defensemen after sophomore Nolan Valleau signed with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in mid-August and freshman Matthew Ferrari left the team two days before its Oct. 9 season-opener.
As a result, Walker, Friedman, McDonald and Pohlkamp have played far more than expected, even though they were going to see regular ice time.
Walker has played well throughout his career, while Friedman was named to the WCHA’s all-rookie team last season. McDonald and Pohlkamp were expected to battle for ice time this season.
Valleau was on the all-rookie team, too. Ferrari was expected see ice time this fall.
The Falcons have dressed five defensemen, instead of the usual six, in their last four games and seven times in the last nine contests. BG has dressed only five defensemen nine times this season.
BG was left with four healthy defensemen for the final 17:32 of its 2-2 tie against Minnesota State Dec. 5 after Delgadillo hurt his shoulder.
“The pressure it has put on those five guys, whoever they may be, has been huge,” Bergeron said. “Dressing (five defensemen) is not the right thing to do. We still want to hold people accountable and play the people who deserve to play.”
Walker and Friedman have led the way as veterans. Friedman is a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“They’ve been a great example (to McDonald and Pohlkamp),” Bergeron said. “They’re everyday guys. Both Sean and Mark are two of the top players on the ice every day in practice. You don’t necessarily need to worry where their focus is or where their game is going to be on a daily basis.
“That’s the biggest thing they can give to both of those kids, their everyday habits, not only those two, but everybody, not only defensemen, but forwards as well. Sean and Mark are guys who bring it every day and we want more like that.”
McDonald and Pohlkamp have provided the Falcons with solid offense and defense.
“We just want to make sure that the difference on their best day and them on their worst day is not very big,” Bergeron said. “If you do that, you’ve got consistency. They’re both headed towards that.”
Both came to BG from United States (Junior) Hockey League where McDonald played two seasons and Pohlkamp one. The two have steadily improved at BG.
“They’ve both been what we thought they would be, other than playing the amount they’ve played,” Bergeron said. “They’ve handled that great. They were both ready (for college hockey), seeing where their games are at.”
The lack of depth on the blueline has led to the defensemen not joining the rush as often as Bergeron and the defensemen would like. Having the defensemen involved in the rush provides another option offensively.
“I want our (defensemen) to be more involved offensively, in particular on the rush,” Bergeron said. “But when you’re playing as many minutes as our guys have been playing, you don’t have the energy to get involved in the (rush).
“Their number one job is to keep pucks out of our net and defend. They have to do what’s best for that, getting the most out of each shift. Some of those shifts are 30 seconds and they’re 30 seconds in your (defensive) zone. They take a bunch out of you.”
Defenseman Jordan Ernst, who is playing for USHL’s Madison Capitols, will join BG for the second half of the season.
Playing fewer minutes also should enable Pohlkamp to be even more physical.
“I’m hoping when we have more guys back there and more competition back there, it’s going to raise everyone’s level,” Bergeron said. “We can start involving our (defensemen) more, in particular on the rush.”
The Falcons aren’t sure when Delgadillo will return, but they’re hopeful it will be for a Dec. 30 game against Western Michigan, or a Jan. 2-3 series against Clarkson. If he doesn’t play then, his return may come soon after that.
Mingo was a healthy scratch for the final seven games in the first half and didn’t travel to Bemidji State last weekend. BG took just 21 players to Bemidji, even though the WCHA allows 22.
When asked if Mingo will return to the team for the second half of the season, Bergeron said: “That’s still yet to be seen.”