Team of the Week: Bowling Green
A lot of what Bowling Green has been working for this season, came together with its Great Lakes Invitational championship this week. It was the third time BG competed in the storied mid-season tournament, and first time it won. The Falcons defeated long-time GLI power Michigan in the semifinals, then shut down fellow WCHA foe Michigan Tech, 4-1, in Tuesday's championship game.
In an effort to earn that elusive NCAA bid, something BGSU hasn't had since 1990 but has been close almost every year recently, the Falcons challenge themselves with a strong non-conference schedule. The problem there is, you have to win a few, and Bowling Green has, but just not enough. In particular, two losses this year to Western Michigan, most recently at home last weekend, were a missed opportunity for the Falcons to rise in the Pairwise.
That's what made the GLI so important in more ways than one. It was Bowling Green's last crack at non-league games, and it came through with flying colors.
"This group has responded pretty well from poor performances so far, and we had one against Western, and we responded against Michigan," Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said.
"Tech came out of the gates really well and we weathered the storm well and that was key. We defended really well the whole game. ... Their second, third, fourth goals, they were bad goals on our part but they weren't defensive breakdowns. As we reviewed the plays, it was hard to point a finger at our players. I wasn't unahppy with the way we defended. Michigan did have shifts where their top guys hemmed us in our zone, and we knew they would at times, but they didn't result in goals."
While Bowling Green has been led by defense and goaltending so far this year, the semifinal against Michigan was a wide-open affair, as is typical of many Michigan games. Bowling Green took a 4-0 lead, then watched Michigan storm back with three goals in the third period, before finally setting for a 6-4 win.
Starting goaltender Ryan Bednard, a sophomomre, who has been excellent all season, had his second straight off night, including the loss to Western Michigan where he was pulled.
"Bednard has been good and he earned the start against Western," Bergeron said. "And with his first half, he earned the start against Michigan. But unfortunately, his first seven, eight, nine days of the second half haven't been good."
Freshman goaltender Eric Dop, an Ohio native, had a solid start but then allowed five goals in consecutive games in November. But after Bednard was tripped up, Dop looked good in relief against Western and then got the opportunity to start the GLI championship game.
"You have a good young player in Dop who is hungry and who realized what was going on," Bergeron said. "He knew he was outplayed a little. But he took advantage of the opportunity against Western, and the opportunity against Tech. It's all about opportunity and what you do with it.
"With the exception of the past week, Bednard has been really good. He's gotta get back to that level. The saving grace in my mind is that the expectations we're comparing him to, he has set that, not us. And we just need him to get back to that level. It's just mental. He was fighting himself against Michigan. There's no hiding as a goaltender."
Bowling Green took a 2-1 lead, and held the lead after a Tech goal was disallowed for being played with a high stick. The Falcons held on from there, getting the clinching goal from senior Tyler Spezia. Spezia, a product of the Little Caesars youth hockey program, had a bunch of friends and old coaches on hand, it being the first GLI played at Detroit's new Little Caesars arena. On a team with few seniors, Spezia's role is important, and he'd scored 18 goals over the last two seasons. But this year, partly due to a hand injury that set him back, Spezia's numbers haven't been there, with just two goals entering the GLI. So for many reasons, it was nice to see him contribute.
"It's nice to see him get rewarded," Bergeron said. "You put pressure on yourself. You want that senior year to be so good. His line has disappointed a little so far with numbers, but he's healthy now."
The defense doesn't have any seniors at all, but there is experience back there in the sense that Bowling Green tends to recruit older players in the first place. For instance, despite being just a sophomore, Alec Rauhauser, who will be 23 in March, has blossomed. He leads the team in points and plus-minus. His offensive skills were always apparent, going back to junior hockey in Des Moines, but he's become a dependable force defensively for Bergeron as well.
"(He) doesn't skate great in the way it looks. He's not the smoothest. But he's really, really compmetitive and so smart," Bergeron said. "Not only can he play against other teams' top players, but his offensive instincts, you can't teach. He was an untapped talent. We knew what we were getting offensively, but you try to him the best he can be, bigger, faster, stronger, and defensively, he's bought into it. Some of the things he's good at, you can't teach.
"He was so raw, there were questions on how committed he was to this. In high school he was playing forward in his hometown of Bismarck, I don't know how hard he to work at that level. Dave Allison (his junior coach) was telling people that he wasn't sure how committed he was to being a hockey player. And over course of the time there, he proved that he's committed."
Going forward, Bowling Green sits at No. 18 in the Pairwise, meaning it's going to either need a lights-out second half in WCHA play, or win the WCHA tournament to make the NCAAs. There's a challenge with 10 of the last 14 regular-season games on the road, but it's done well on the road this year. Last year, the Falcons fell one game short of a WCHA title, and it seems like every year they are right on the cusp. One year, they literally missed the NCAAs by .0001 RPI point. At some point, you kinda have to laugh in order to not cry.
"We're going to continue to schedule difficult non-league opponents," Bergeron said. "And at some point, hopefully we've taken advantage and put ourselves in position where we don't need to win the playoffs to get in. It's good we're in the conversation. But we need to kick this door down and not only be in the conversation.
"Is it frustrating? No. Is it disappointing? Maybe a little bit. I think frustration is a waste of time. I just want to continue to push forward and put ourselves in the right situations. It's not 'if,' it's 'when' we take advantage of those situations. And hopefully (the GLI) is an example of one of those opportunities where we took advantage."