At the start of December 2011, Bowling Green was sitting in last place in the CCHA standings with one win to the Falcons’ credit and five points to show for 12 league games played. In conference play, the Falcons had scored 14 goals and were nine points behind 10th-place Alaska.
It’s one year later and the Falcons are again in last place with one win in nine games and six league points. The fact that BGSU has 13 goals in those nine games — 0.27 more goals per game than a season ago — is little comfort to anyone in the Falcons’ camp.
“I don’t know what to say,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said. “We’re obviously struggling. We’re walking the same path I thought we walked last year.”
Bergeron isn’t talking only about the eerily similar midseason stats. What Bergeron and assistant coaches Barry Schutte and Ty Eigner are trying to do goes well beyond mere rebuilding. The coaches at BGSU, now in their third season, are trying to resuscitate a program that hasn’t seen a 20-win season in 16 years, since many of the current Falcons players were toddlers.
There is no recent history of sustained success from which any of the current BGSU players can draw inspiration. These are college kids, too; while the coaches have decades of personal experience, the players are just starting out.
And it’s hard to start out with so little in the proverbial bank. The Falcons had a great second half last year with their CCHA playoff run and appearance at the CCHA Tournament in Joe Louis Arena, but that was a nibble, a line — not an anchor.
“We’re trying to lean on a three-month period where we showed a little success,” Bergeron said, “where [other] teams are leaning on 15 years of success. It’s 15 or 10 weeks for us, and it’s not enough.”
It’s especially not enough when the Falcons are looking at midseason from the same vantage point they had a year ago. BGSU last played Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, a 3-1 road loss to Michigan that Bergeron said wasn’t his team’s best performance.
Senior defenseman Robert Shea scored with two seconds left in the first period of that game to give the Falcons a 1-0 lead going into the second, but the Wolverines scored three unanswered in the second period and BG mustered a total of 16 shots on goal for the game.
“The first period I didn’t think was very good at all,” Bergeron said. “Instead of the goal creating momentum for our team and waking us up a little bit it seemed to go in the opposite direction. [Goaltender] Andrew Hammond had a really good night. If it weren’t for him, the score could have been a lot worse.”
Hammond finished the night with 35 saves.
A reshuffling of the schedule to allow Michigan to play Cornell at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24 has given the Falcons two full weekends off to attempt to regroup before their last three games of the first half. This week they travel to Alaska for two. They’re at home against Notre Dame for a single game Dec. 15.
“We were able to sit down with every player during this last little break here and go over with them what’s expected from them as individuals and as team players,” Bergeron said. “There’s more learning to do. Our leadership potential is more than we had last year, but we’re still waiting for the players to take that over. They know that.”
It’s a singular point in BGSU hockey history: The players are young, many of them struggling individually, many of them having filled leadership roles on previous teams — but many of them unsure of how to cope with their own specific play-related issues while maintaining leadership for the team as a whole.
“They have to learn how to wear both hats,” Bergeron said. “That’s what our challenge has been. When things go bad, they’re once again looking at the coaches or each other for the answer instead of taking ownership of their own play. Until the guys realize that this is their push, not much will change.”
Bergeron is quick to point out that his players work hard, compete well and are responsible on and off the ice. They’ve bought what the coaches are selling. It’s not a matter of effort. Everyone sees an improved BG team this year.
“We’ve played better hockey than our record,” Bergeron said, “but I’m sick of saying that. The record is what it is.”
Bergeron said that he and his coaches aren’t discussing wins and losses. “We’re so far from looking at the standings,” he said. “I don’t see what the benefit is from looking at the standings. Worrying about results gets away from progress. That’s all the standings are is results. We’re trying to focus on progress. Never mind results. I think there’s been more positive than what our body of work shows.”
When the Falcons head to Fairbanks this week, Bergeron has one expectation. “I’m expecting us to show up and compete,” he said. “What we get beyond that remains to be seen. When we’re a team, when we compete, we struggle with execution. How well we’re able to execute is the thing.”
Bowling Green won in Fairbanks last season, going 1-3 against the Nanooks for the season. That win was one of five league victories for the Falcons in 2011-12.
Players of the week
Three newcomers and one repeat offender.
Rookie of the week: Notre Dame forward Mario Lucia, son of Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who had three goals in ND’s home sweep of Lake Superior State.
Offensive player of the week: Miami sophomore Austin Czarnik, who had a goal and four assists in Miami’s road sweep of Alaska.
Defenseman of the week: Miami freshman Matthew Caito, who had two assists and six blocked shots in that series versus the Nanooks.
Goaltender of the week: For the second week in a row, Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle — whose last name is pronounced “GEL-ee” — who had 53 saves in OSU’s road sweep of Michigan State.
1. Boston College
3. New Hampshire
4. Notre Dame
7. Western Michigan
8. Ferris State
9. Boston University
10. North Dakota
16. Colorado College
19. St. Cloud State