This Week in the WCHA: Bowling Green’s GLI win ‘a pretty special thing’

 (BGSU Athletics)
Bowling Green captured the first Great Lakes Invitational held in the brand-new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit (photo: BGSU Athletics).

Calling this a big weekend for Bowling Green would be an understatement.

The Falcons powered their way to the championship of the Great Lakes Invitational, had a trio of players honored with WCHA weekly honors, and started checking off boxes that could be lining the road for the first NCAA tournament bid since 1990.

Sure, it’s just an invitational tournament in January, but coach Chris Bergeron is using this as a building block for a young team — even if they may not realize what they’ve accomplishing.

“It’s a pretty special thing,” Bergeron said. “I don’t know how many of our guys realize that now that our name will be up the rafters on the GLI banner for the next 12 months. It’s one thing to get invited. Then you start to piece it together that it’s the first year of the new building (Little Caesars Arena) and all that excitement and energy that comes with it.”

On top of that, the Falcons have climbed to No. 19 in the USCHO poll, and the GLI could be a springboard into a successful second half where a regular-season championship, and the home ice that comes with it in the playoffs, is very much in reach.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Falcons is how quickly they’ve come together on a team that relies heavily on freshmen. The Falcons top scorers and goalie are college hockey rookies, and they’ve been learning from extremely close games this season.

Before the tournament title the end of 2017 featured a pair of shootout losses and a double-overtime disappointment in the past six weeks. It was a learning experience for the Falcons, and when they were in a close game in Detroit, first against Michigan, they made the timely plays and delivered a 6-4 victory.

Against Michigan Tech, a WCHA foe, the Falcons once again had to play a smart close game, and the 4-1 final wasn’t indicative of how close the tight-checking championship was.

“I think the key to that game tonight was the way that we defended up until the third period,” Bergeron said after the game. “I thought we defended really strong and took away time and space for the most part.”

“I give full credit to the way Bowling Green played the hockey game tonight,” Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan said. “We were able to play the way we wanted to through the first two periods. It turned into the Bowling Green style game in the third period. I think they had a way of breaking our will a little bit.”

While the Huskies, who are the official hosts for the GLI, lost in the final, it was also a strong showing for the runner-up when it comes to conference prestige.

From the outside view, most expected Michigan and Michigan State to meet in the championship game. They tournament is always designed for that potential outcome, and the Falcons and Huskies were glad to play spoiler, and make a statement that the WCHA wasn’t going to take a back seat to the Big 10.

NMU keeps climbing

Not many gave Northern Michigan a chance to make much noise at the beginning of the season.

The Wildcats, who had finished eighth in the league standings in 2016-17, were predicted to do only slightly better this season, by both the media and the coaches — seventh.

But under new head coach Grant Potulny, the Wildcats have thrived. Thanks to a great run in December, NMU has managed to climb the league standings and go into 2018 in second place — five points behind league-leading Minnesota State.

The Wildcats’ 4-2-2 December record was capped by a series against the very Mavericks they trail in the standings. And in Friday’s game — a 4-3 win — they kept battling in a back-and-forth game that wasn’t final until Joseph Nardi won it with 36 seconds to go. That goal put NMU just two points behind MSU going into Saturday’s series finale.

The Mavs managed to win that one 6-3 and put some distance between them and the Wildcats — their lead is now five games — but NMU’s success against the top teams in the league proves the Wildcats aren’t going to be going away anytime soon. (For the record, NMU is 3-3-2 against the teams in the top half of the league — MSU, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green and Bemidji State.)

NMU had a three-point lead on both Tech and BGSU as the calendar turns to 2018, and has one series against each of them remaining. The Wildcats step out of the conference this weekend to compete in the Vegas Hockey Classic, but their Jan. 12-13 series against Bowling Green in Marquette is going to be one to watch.

Ice Chips

— Bemidji State swept Alabama Huntsville last weekend, extending its unbeaten streak to seven games. This current stretch is the Beavers’ longest since going eight games without a loss from Oct. 28-Nov. 19, 2016. The Beavers will look to extend that streak even further when they visit Lake Superior State this weekend. It’s their first road trip since Dec. 1-2.

— Michigan Tech will cap off a busy week Friday and Saturday when they play in the Vegas Hockey Classic in Las Vegas. The Huskies, who take on Boston College in the opener, will be playing four games in six days after they took second in the Great Lakes Invitational, which was played Monday and Tuesday in Detroit.

— Minnesota State heads to Alaska this week, the start of a two-week, four-game road trip that sees the Mavericks in Anchorage Jan. 5-6 and in Fairbanks Jan. 12-13. MSU enters the series with Alaska Anchorage ranking sixth in the country in power play percentage (.258, 23/89) and is tenth in penalty killing (.865, 77/89).

Players of the Week

This week’s WCHA Players of the Week are Bowling Green sophomore Lukas Craggs (offensive), Bowling Green sophomore Alec Rauhauser (defensive), Lake Superior State junior Nick Kossoff (goaltender) and Bowling Green freshman goaltender Eric Dop (rookie).