Bowling Green’s defensemen are playing well.
The Falcons have received quality play from Sean Walker, Mark Friedman, Adam Smith, Alec Rauhauser, Connor McDonald, Chris Pohlkamp and Jacob Dalton during the team’s late season-surge.
BG has won seven straight games entering this weekend’s championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs.
The Falcons, 21-17-2 overall, visit Michigan Tech (22-14-7) Saturday night at 7:07. The winner earns the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Playoffs. BG finished fourth in the league during the regular season, while Tech finished second.
“We’re in a good state of mind,” Friedman said of the defensemen. “Our heads are in the right place. Everyone is on the same page when it comes to the (defensive-)zone. We’re doing all of the little things d-men need to be good at and help the forwards and the team succeed.
“Our communication is good. We’re all good skaters, and we skate our way out of trouble if we need to. We’re not forcing anything. We’re playing smart hockey. When it comes to this time of year, you want to be playing your best.”
The defensemen have played well at both ends of the ice. They’re taking away time and space when they defend, and they’re making a good first pass to start the offense. They also have good skills to contribute at the offensive blue line, whether it be shooting or passing the puck.
The Falcons have allowed three or fewer goals in every game during their winning streak, including three shutouts and two one-goal allowed games.
The defensemen have been helped by the checking of the forwards and the play of goalie Chris Nell, who has a 1.08 goals-against average and a .964 save percentage during the winning streak.
“We’re doing a better job of taking away time and space in all three zones,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of the defense corps. “We’ve simplified, and we’ve been defending harder, and taking away time and space better. “
Tech has a stable of talented forwards. The Huskies are the third-highest scoring team in the league, averaging 2.93 goals per game. They also have the second-best power play at 18.7 percent.
“We’re going to need to take away time and space against (Michigan Tech),” Bergeron said. “We’re going to need to understand that backing off is not the answer. It’s taking away time and space and being tight without taking risks.”
BG has relied heavily on senior Walker and junior Friedman late in the season, and the play of freshman Rauhauser and sophomore Smith has complemented the efforts of the Falcon veterans.
Friedman is paired with Smith, and Walker skates with Rauhauser. The pairings are receiving approximately 80 percent of the team’s minutes on defense, BG assistant coach Ty Eigner estimated.
The top four all kill penalties, and Friedman, Rauhauser and Walker all skate on the power play. Both pairings be matched against the best players in the league.
Sophomores McDonald and Pohlkamp, and freshman Dalton have provided depth on the blue line.
Friedman has eight goals and 18 assists, while Walker has 10 goals and 14 assists, and Rauhauser has five goals and 16 assists. Smith, McDonald, Pohlkamp and Dalton have combined for three goals and 11 assists.
“It’s nice to play the game in the offensive zone,” Friedman said. “It’s a lot less tiring for the d-men, and it’s always nice to contribute with goals and assists.”
Friedman, a third-round draft pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2014, has been a regular since coming to BG. He’s always been an elite skater and a major offensive presence, but he’s having his best season defensively with the Falcons.
“I feel good about my game,” Friedman said.
Friedman, who is 5-foot-10, 195-pounds, has earned all-league recognition every season. He was a third-team honoree this season, second-team last season and on the all-rookie team in 2014.
“He’s playing really well,” Bergeron said. “He’s done a great job. He deserves a bunch of credit.”
Freidman’s on-ice rating is +7.
“If Mark controls time and space, which should be easy for him because of how well he skates, he’s just a different defender,” Bergeron said. “When he’s taking away time and space and shutting people down, he can defend as well as anybody because of how well he skates.”
Smith’s strong finish this season came after an up and down first half. He was in out and of the lineup, and then missed seven games in late January and early February because of a hand injury. But he returned against Mercyhurst Feb. 11 and has played well since.
“Confidence,” Bergeron said of why Smith has played well of late. “He’s a confidence guy, like a lot of these kids. When he’s not confident, he thinks too much. “When you think too much, you get caught in between. Adam at his best is not in-between,” Bergeron added. “He’s been playing proactively versus against having to react to things.”
Smith (6-2, 195) is effective because he’s a shutdown defender, skates well, is strong, makes good decisions with the puck and has good offensive skills.
He’s only in his third semester at BG, joining the team after the Christmas break last season. He was solid as a freshman with a goal and two assists, and on-ice rating of +4 in 22 games. Smith was a seventh-round pick of the NHL’s Nashville Predators in June.
“He wasn’t so confident at the start of the year with his play,” Friedman said. “Now, he’s playing like he’s an NHL draft pick.”
Smith also is valuable because of his personality, Friedman said.
“He’s always joking around and making guys smiles, and he keeps the bench light,” Friedman said. “If someone makes a bad play, he’s always reminding them to forget about it, go back out there the next shift and do your thing. He’s a good guy to have on your team and on your bench because he’s good at setting the mood. “
Rauhauser (6-3, 215) has been sharp late in the season to finish a typical season for many first-year players. He played well early and then had a difficult middle part of the season before finishing strong.
“He has so much natural talent,” Bergeron said. “His only issue, like any other freshman, is you start to wear down mentally and physically. It seems like he’s gotten a second wind.”
Rauhauser has excellent offensive skill, and plays with poise and confidence.
“He’s super smart,” Friedman said. “He’s getting better all the time. He’s a freshman, but he plays like he’s a junior or a senior.”