For every team in the CCHA, one week can make a big difference. For Bowling Green, the difference from one week to the next can be a paradigm shift.
“Last Monday, we were thinking we’d gone off track,” Falcons coach Chris Bergeron said. “This weekend, things are good. We’re dealing with 20-year-old kids here.”
The Monday that Bergeron is referring to is Jan. 28, the first day of the week following Miami’s sweep of the Falcons, 2-1 and 3-1 losses. This Monday, Feb. 4, BGSU was coming off a two-game sweep of its own over Lake Superior State, having beaten the Lakers 4-1 and 7-3.
At the end of January, Bowling Green had 19 points and was tied with Michigan for ninth place; a week later the Falcons are still tied with the Wolverines, but each team has 25 points and they’ve climbed to eighth place.
The Falcons have finished in last place in the CCHA standings three of the last four seasons, and in 2009-10 Bowling Green finished in 11th place ahead of Western Michigan, back when the CCHA was still a 12-team league.
Ninth place to eighth? A two-game sweep and six points to keep pace with the team with which they’re knotted in the standings, a team on which they have two games in hand?
In short, the Falcons are beginning to realize that their past may not dictate their immediate future. The teams that finish sixth, seventh and eighth place in the league get to host a first-round CCHA playoff series. While Bergeron said that Bowling Green doesn’t want to get ahead of itself, with the end of the regular season a month away the possibilities for a longtime cellar-dwelling team are tantalizing.
“We’re going to try to do the right thing every day,” Bergeron said. “The focus is today. We haven’t talked about it in terms of hosting [the first round of the playoffs] and not hosting. We’re not finishing ‘here’ — I don’t even want to use the word where we finished the last few years.”
With a 5-3 record in conference play in the second half of the season, the Falcons may be establishing themselves as a second-half team. In 2011-12, BGSU went 2-2-2 in January and improved enough to run through the CCHA playoffs on the road, all the way to an appearance in the playoff championship tournament in Detroit — knocking off Ferris State, the eventual NCAA runner-up, along the way.
Although Bergeron wouldn’t put it in those terms and he wants to keep his team on an even keel, the signs of progress for his team are unmistakable.
“We’re in a position where these games matter,” Bergeron said. “That’s a good thing. That’s progress. We have to take a step forward before we take the next step forward.
“I know these kids are looking at the standings. I don’t think we have to hide from it.”
One of the keys to Bowling Green’s tenacity is, well, the team’s tenacity. Even though Bergeron said that the team “didn’t play well” in those games against Miami, he added that “we found a way to gather ourselves and have a good practice that Monday. Then the week progressively got better.”
Bergeron wants success at Bowling Green as much for his players as for himself and his staff — maybe even more so. It’s evident every time he talks about the baby steps that the program is making and those young men who are taking them.
“The level of resiliency, the level of compete, the level of intensity … the players deserve to feel so much better about what they’ve done than they do,” Bergeron said. “These are young men that are doing everything that’s asked of them. We’re asking them to execute at a higher level. That’s not something you can control. That takes practice and time.”
Bergeron said that one of the most difficult things to overcome is the transition that the program is making from one that spent so much time at the bottom of the CCHA to one that can imagine itself finishing even a little higher. His players don’t have the luxury of a recent tradition of success from which to draw inspiration and direction.
“That’s something that can be passed down from class to class,” Bergeron said. “That focus on execution has only started two-and-a-half years ago.”
And don’t ask Bergeron about the teams the Falcons play. “We focus on us,” said Bergeron, who includes his coaching staff in this. “It’s a relentless, everyday focus. Practice has to be this. Weight room has to be this. What you do in the classroom has to be a certain way.”
One player who had to learn to believe in himself, Bergeron said, is sophomore forward Dajon Mingo. A Canton, Mich., native, Mingo sat out the 2011-12 season.
“He had to prove to himself, in particular, that he could do the academic piece and he did,” Bergeron said.
According to Bergeron, Mingo skated and worked out on his own for his entire freshman season while he was bringing his academics up to speed. Now Mingo is emerging as one of Bowling Green’s key players. He’s had a goal in his last three games — including the only BGSU tally in the 3-1 loss to Miami on Jan. 26 and the game-winning goal in last Friday’s 4-1 win over LSSU. He’s second on the team in scoring with eight goals and 11 assists.
“He wasn’t able to practice or anything so this kid hadn’t played hockey in 18 months,” Bergeron said. “I don’t know if he’s ever been totally pushed before.”
The expectation of success is something to which Mingo responds well. “It’s a story that’s just beginning,” Bergeron said, “and it could really go somewhere.”
Two other players emerging for BGSU are sophomore defenseman Mike Sullivan and freshman forward Mark Cooper. Sullivan scored his second collegiate goal in 69 games on the power play against Lake Superior in Saturday’s 7-3 win. Cooper had two goals in that contest, including the winner.
Neither player is flashy, Bergeron said, but that’s fine with him. “Mike Sullivan, Mark Cooper, two Toronto kids,” he said. “In that city, in that atmosphere, if you don’t go major junior, you’re nothing. Michael continues to grow up. He’s been given a bunch of responsibility for our team. He plays the hockey that we brought him here to play.
“Up and down the roster, the kids that we recruited [have] some pretty neat stories. The older guys … well, the ones who have stuck around and bought into the program are invaluable.”
Players like senior goaltender Andrew Hammond (2.52 goals against average, .917 save percentage), the workhorse in Bowling Green’s net. “Andrew’s challenge, like anybody, is going from good to great,” Bergeron said. “He’s said it more than once, he didn’t come here to lose. He knows he’s part of the solution and he wants to make it better.”
Bergeron said that Hammond committed to Bowling Green “under pretty different circumstances,” but has become an all-around leader for the Falcons. “He has a chance to go on from here, too,” Bergeron said.
As much as the Falcons have shown improvement, Bergeron said that whatever has been gained is precarious.
“Our margin of error is so small right now,” he said. “Other teams can rely on the power play or one player who can turn it up. We don’t have that.”
This weekend, Bowling Green plays a home-and-home series against Michigan State for the second time this season. The Falcons beat the Spartans 1-0 in East Lansing on Nov. 2 before losing at home 6-1 the following night.
• Bowling Green’s sweep of Lake Superior State was the first conference sweep for the Falcons since Nov. 15-16, 2008.
• Michigan also swept an opponent last weekend, archrival Michigan State. For the Wolverines, the wait for a sweep wasn’t quite as long but it was the first sweep of the 2012-13 season for Michigan. As junior forward Derek DeBlois told the Michigan Daily, “It’s one thing to sweep, and then I think it’s another thing to sweep State.” DeBlois had three goals in the two contests, including two in Saturday’s 5-2 win in Joe Louis Arena for his first multi-goal career game.
• Miami is in first place by a point after sweeping Alaska at home. Friday’s 4-1 win stopped Alaska’s six-game win streak. “You can see why they are a top team,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi told the school website Friday. “They never quit and they have good speed.”
•Last weekend marked the last time that Ferris State and Western Michigan will meet as conference rivals in a regular season series. After the 2-2 tie on Saturday, FSU coach Bob Daniels said: “It’s hard to believe this closes a chapter on this rivalry. My first thought after the game was, ‘Too bad this can’t continue.” Next season, the Bulldogs will play in the WCHA and the Broncos in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Big Rapids, Mich., and Kalamazoo are 106 miles apart.
• Notre Dame junior defenseman Jared Beers has been suspended from the team indefinitely after allegedly assaulting the female manager of a South Bend bar.
Players of the week
I do love a good story. Brady Hjelle is a good story. In fact, each one of these is a good story.
Rookie of the week: Michigan forward Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, who had three goals and two assists in the Wolverines’ sweep of Michigan State, including Friday’s game-winning goal. Nieves is the first Michigan freshman honored this season and only the second Wolverines player to be named player of the week in any position or capacity in 2012-13. Wow.
Offensive player of the week: Miami senior Marc Hagel. Who, you ask? Well, the forward from Hamilton, Ontario, transferred from Princeton and is playing his first season — and his last season of Division I hockey — with the RedHawks. Hagel had five assists in Miami’s sweep of Alaska last weekend and helped with each game winner. His team photo also shows very impressive hockey locks.
Defenseman of the week: Bowling Green senior and one of the league’s steadiest stay-at-home blueliners, Bobby Shea. He had four assists in the Falcons’ sweep of Lake Superior State, including a helper on Friday’s game-winning goal. Through 27 games this season, Shea has three goals and 13 assists — one goal short of his career-high goal output, set last season, and already seven points ahead of his career-high nine points from 2011-12.
Goaltender of the week: For the fifth time this season, Ohio State senior Hjelle, who had 29 saves in the Buckeyes’ 6-3 win over Notre Dame last Friday but 45 — a career high — in Saturday’s 2-2 overtime tie.
2. Boston College
3. New Hampshire
5. St. Cloud State
7. Western University
8. North Dakota
11. Boston University
13. Notre Dame
14. Minnesota State
15. Ferris State