Yes, the Bowling Green football program has had the spotlight in recent weeks. But the BG hockey team returns to action Thursday in the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh, so here’s a look at where the Falcons stand at this point in the season.
- As a reset, the Falcons are 8-8-4 overall, including a 6-6-2 record in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, good for a third-place tie with Bemidji State. Bowling Green will face No. 7 Boston College at 4:35 p.m. Friday at the Consol Energy Center, the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Penn State and Robert Morris will meet in Game 2 of this tournament at 7:35 p.m. Friday night. The losers of those two games will play at 4:35 p.m. Saturday, and the winners will play at 7:35 p.m. Saturday.
- Just before the holidays I talked to BG coach Chris Bergeron about where the team stands at this point in the season. I started with a loaded question: If you set aside everything that has happened in the season so far, is a .500 record what you would have expected from your team? “We expected to be in a better situation than .500,” Bergeron admitted. “But the one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here is this: You have to live through everything. When you look at it that way, this is part of the deal. At this time last year we had three wins; we had no home wins. From a transitional standpoint, we went through a lot of new things in the first half: We had the lead a lot more, and we haven’t played well with the lead, and we’re working on improving our play on the road. But on Sept. 1, if you would have asked me where I thought we would be at this time, I would have said better than a .500 mark.”
- Of course, the Falcons have had to overcome injuries to several key players, as well as some disappointing play at times, to reach the break-even mark. When I asked Bergeron how difficult has it been to go through these struggles, he said, “Very difficult. I’m going through some of these things for the first time as a head coach. It becomes difficult because players and coaches are looking to me for [cues] as to how to act. … But it’s part of the journey. We have to live through this to get better at it. My first year [at BG], I may not have understood that. My second and third years have helped me understand that it is necessary. We’ve proven we can come back; now we’ve been getting the better of the teams we’ve been playing to get a lead, and now we have to prove we can play with a lead. Is that an excuse? Absolutely not. But it’s part of the process we have to go through. And I have faith in that.”
- Bergeron said his biggest concern for the Falcons at this point in the season is getting better at defending in five-on-five situations. “I think we are progressing on special teams,” he said. “I know we are going to get healthy, so our internal competition [for playing time] will get stronger in the second half. But specifically, we need to defend better five-on-five. If we do that, it will enable us to get leads; it will enable us to play better with the lead. … Five-on-five defending is something I thought we had licked, but it’s not. It’s something we have to keep working on; that’s going to be a specific and intentional focus in the second half.”
- Bergeron said the thing he likes most about his team at this point in the season is the way the team is able to deal with adversity. “Our adversity to this point has included dealing with injuries and dealing with games where we have lost a lead,” he said. “That’s why our last weekend at Michigan Tech was a huge weekend for us. It could have brought us to the break feeling sorry for ourselves for not having played well, but that’s not what happened. Instead with took three out of a possible four points from one of the best teams in the league. We didn’t play great, but we found a way. We have had games where we have played better than that and lost. I’m happy with a very physically and mentally tired team finding a way to pick themselves up and get three-of-four points.”
On Friday the Falcons won 3-2 as Tommy Burke stopped 39 shots. But on Saturday the Falcons had to overcome a pair of two-goal deficits to earn a 4-4 tie as Burke faced a whopping 47 shots. Worse, BG trailed 3-1 before scoring, then giving up a Michigan Tech goal that made it 4-2. But instead of quitting, the Falcons scored twice in the final three minutes to escape with a third point.
“After that [fourth Michigan Tech] goal, it would have been easy to get the mind-set that, ‘It is just not our night,’” Bergeron said. “But that is a situation where we have been before, and we know we can come back.”
- The WCHA is led by Ferris State, which is 10-0-2 in 12 games for 22 (out of a possible 24) points. Minnesota State is second with 18 points in 12 games, and from there the standings tighten. Bemidji State and BG are next with 14 points (in 14 games), followed by Lake Superior, Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage with 12 points (in 12 games) and Northern Michigan with nine points (in 10 games). In short, there are basically six teams playing at a point-a-game pace.
“From top to bottom it has been a very tight league,” Bergeron said. “Selfishly, I look at our games against Ferris State and [Minnesota State] and see they are close as close can get. … I feel we match up well with them, but that doesn’t mean anything because we don’t play them [any more]. We have put ourselves in a decent spot to control what happens in the second half. We have eight home games, and we can still control if we get home ice for the first round of the playoffs. We play teams that right around us in the standings. … And we are getting healthy. There are things in place to allow us to take a .500 team and elevate it. We know that if we improve on a .500 team, that bodes well for the second half. We’ve been to some of the hardest places in our league, so I think we’re in a good spot to hold our playoff fortunes in our own hands.”
- How important is it for the Falcons to finish in the top five and get home ice for a first-round WCHA playoff series? “Since we haven’t had one, I think it’s huge,” Bergeron said. “It’s a first that we need to get to. We were close last year, but we found a way to not play well in a couple of key series and we weren’t able to get a home-ice round. It would be disappointing if we don’t because that would mean it was something that we didn’t do [that kept us from playing at home].”
- The Falcons are getting close to having several injured players return to the lineup. Junior forward Ryan Carpenter has been cleared to begin skating with the team, and the most likely scenario at this point is that he will return for the home series against Alaska-Fairbanks on Jan. 10-11. “I think he is in the conversation for [playing at] Huntsville [Jan. 3-4],” Bergeron said. “He’s been told to stay off the foot, so he hasn’t skated on it – he’s not even walking on it. Once he’s told he can walk on it, he can go. We’re hoping he can skate with us in Pittsburgh, then have a chance to play at Huntsville. But Alaska is most probable.” Please note that this conversation happened before the holidays; Carpenter wears a “boot” to protect a broken foot, but he has been cleared to begin skating.
The good news is that junior forward Adam Berkle, who has missed five games with a hip pointer, will be available for the Three Rivers Classic. “He could play today if we needed him to,” Bergeron said – and I asked this question before the holidays. “That’s great, because he still has time to get back into it. Losing Adam Berkle was a big loss for us, because we were a tired and mentally tired team – and he had played some great minutes for us.”
- More bad news for the Falcons as sophomore Dajon Mingo has been declared academically ineligible. Mingo split time between forward and defense in 18 games and had three goals and eight assists.
- Nobody asked me, but I feel the Falcons’ first-half MVP is sophomore Mark Cooper. Cooper is tied for the team lead with eight goals, and he is third on the team with 14 points. The stat that I like, though, is that he is plus-5 in plus-minus on the season; the two other eight-goal scorers are on the minus side. … Among the other worthy candidates for MVP are sophomore goalie Tommy Burke (6-1-4 record, 2.38 goals-against average), senior forward Bryce Williamson (tied for team lead with eight goals, nine assists and team-high 17 points), sophomore forward Ben Murphy (tied for team lead with eight goals), and junior forward Dan DeSalvo (four goals, team-high 11 assists, plus-3 for season).
- Speaking of Burke, he had been splitting time in the BG goal with freshman Tomas Sholl until the Michigan Tech series, when Burke started both games. When I asked Bergeron if he had made a decision to start Burke full-time, he said, “I don’t think we’ve made that decision yet. What went into the decision [Michigan Tech weekend] was that Tomas Sholl wasn’t great in his last two starts, and Tommy Burke played probably his best game Friday night at Tech. He deserved to play Saturday. … Tommy Burke has put himself into a spot where he’s the main part of the conversation.”
- When Mingo was eligible, the Falcons had moved him to defense on occasion, and I asked Bergeron what was the impetus for that move. “Quite honestly, we’ve reaching a little bit [moving Mingo to defense],” Bergeron admitted. “We’re trying to create some competition in practice on a daily basis because our execution level in the back end, either with the puck or without it, quite simply hasn’t been good enough. It’s been disappointing, because we have a senior who isn’t 100 percent healthy and four juniors who have been through so much, who have played in hard places, and they have struggled. We need improved play there. … We need improved play back there.
“We’ve got the bodies [to play well there]. Each and every guy, over the course of time, have proven they can play at this level – and can play at a high level at this level. It’s unfortunate that they all seem to be fighting the game collectively. …
“Those four juniors are the same group that won a playoff series at Ferris State as freshmen. There’s no way they can’t get to that level again. The bar they have set for themselves, and then raising it, is what we’re asking of them.”
- Finally, Bergeron spoke of the excitement he and the team share for the Three Rivers Classic. “It’s a neat thing because of our connections between BG and [Penguins head coach] Dan Bylsma and [Pens assistant] Todd Reirden being coaches there,” Bergeron said. “And then with [Boston College] coach Jerry York and his ties to Bowling Green, Boston College was invited for a reason, too. Jerry York’s impact on this program has been tremendous. … And it’s neat that our guys get to play in an NHL rink.”