By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
"As far as expectations go, we feel it's time. We have been close and around here close isn't good enough. We feel it's time for us to kick that door down and really compete for a regular season or playoff championship. We are hoping this team has the capabilities of doing that."
Those were words right out of Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron's mouth this past September during the annual WCHA preseason media day. Picked to finish second in the conference by the media and third by the league coaches, Bergeron acknowledged that the pieces seemed to be in place for the Falcons to soar this season. At least that's what he hoped.
Two months later ... enter Brandon Kruse…
"Our goal is to try and kick this door down and we are trying to do that for everyone involved. Everyone has worked really hard and if we can finally kick this door down I think this team can go a long way," said Kruse earlier this week. "I think we finally have what it takes."
At 6-2-1 through their first nine games, Bowling Green is kicking alright and, while the door isn't down just yet, the hinges are starting to loosen. Thanks to early-season wins over programs like Western Michigan (two wins) and Ohio State (one win, one tie), the Falcons have started to climb the college hockey ladder, all the way to a number 10 ranking in the recent D-1 polls. At the time of those marquee wins, each of Bowling Green's opponents mentioned were also ranked nationally. Furthermore, the Falcons have also established themselves early as one of the best offensive teams in the country. Averaging more than four goals per game (4.33), BGSU is second in the county in scoring and first in the WCHA (on the other side of the ice, the Falcons are tied for fourth nationally and second in the WCHA by allowing just 1.67 goals per contest). On the power play, Bergeron's crew is scoring at a clip of 25 percent- and that includes a 0-12 glitch last weekend against Northern Michigan! They were scoring 34 percent of the time up to that point. Individually, at the national level, two of the Falcons' skaters are tied for second in points (Kruse and Max Johnson); both with 13 points through their first nine games. In conference play, six of the top 13 scorers wear orange and brown. As stated earlier, they are kicking and the door is ready to come off.
"The one thing we have to do here at Bowling Green is we have to do it by committee, it has to be about us and not certain individuals," stated Bergeron. "Obviously there are some guys who stand out because of their points, but I think through nine games, this year's team has been about us and about the collective group and not about a few individuals."
No question. With that being said, without even looking, one specific group jumps off the paper when dissecting the Falcon scoresheet week after week; their sophomore class. Their huge sophomore class. Nine players strong to be exact.
Truth be told, many saw the Falcons' early success coming thanks to last year's résumé. In 2017-18, Bowling Green won 23 games, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the WCHA and a trip to the league semifinals. Seven then-freshmen registered points last season, including Kruse (8G-25A-33 pts) and Johnson (13G-17A-30 pts), who finished second and fifth, respectively, on the team in total points. Both were also named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team, along with goaltender Eric Dop. Quite frankly, it was a challenge for the WCHA to stop at three. The electric rookie class also included Cameron Wright (9G-16A-25 pts), Connor Ford (8G-10A-18 pts), Sam Craggs (3G-6A-9 pts), Justin Wells (1G-4A-5 pts) and Carson Musser (0G-3A-3 pts). In total, of the 330 points BGSU scored last season as a team, the freshman class compiled 123 of them, which means the rookie skaters accounted for 37 percent of the team points. They also accounted for 34 percent of the team goals one season ago.
Heading into this season, the foundation was there for Bergeron's incoming sophomore class to be even better, but it wasn't a certainty. Known as the "sophomore slump," players who encounter immediate success right away sometimes take their foot off the gas, expecting the same type of success the following season. Now in his ninth year as head coach, Bergeron had seen it before and hoped this class wouldn't allow that to happen. It took him and others about two practices early this fall to realize that instead of losing a step, his sophomore studs had actually gotten better- all of them. That, along with a core of upperclassmen who were also returning, including the 2017-18 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and All-American Alec Rauhauser, junior goaltender Ryan Bednard and senior forward Stephen Baylis (just to name a few); it was hard for Bergeron to bottle up the excitement he was feeling. After all, they hadn't even played their first game yet. Now nine games in he can let some of that emotion out….at least a little bit.
"You're just not sure. You lose Mitchell McLain and his 18 goals and his presence on that power play from a team; that's a big loss. I think the group kind of picked up where they left off last year. I think it's just guys taking their game to another level," replied Bergeron. "Our freshman class has complimented the rest of the team nicely, but it's really the sophomores, juniors and seniors who have been carrying the mail for us. Having a guy like Rauhauser on the back end and guys like Lukas Craggs and Baylis up front, you almost don't like to mention names because there are so many guys who are contributing. We are also defending at a really high level right now which, with all of the offensive numbers being talking about, that gets lost in the conversation sometimes."
"We only lost four seniors so we are playing with pretty much the same group of guys as last year and that has really helped with chemistry," added Max Johnson, the team leader in goals with six through nine games. "Yeah, that sophomore slump people talk about, it happens to a lot of people, but just having the same group of guys and playing on such a young team- having nine sophomores who really get along with one another; it's easy for all of us to keep things in perspective and stay focused on what we are trying to do. There really isn't any negativity surrounding this team right now. From top to bottom we enjoy playing with one another. We have great leaders and a solid core that is buying into what we are doing."
What they are doing is something rarely, if ever, seen by Bergeron during his tenure at BGSU; especially the talented group of sophomores who roam the ice in Bowling Green, Ohio. During the 2013-14 season- their first full season in the WCHA, Bergeron's squad won 18 games and finished third in the conference race that year. His sophomore class was good that year, accounting for 36 percent of the Falcons' goals and 31 percent of the team points. The following year (2014-15) BGSU once again finished third in the WCHA and that season, that sophomore class which included the likes of Matt Pohlkamp and Pierre-Luc Mercier, scored 34 percent of the team points and accounted for 37 percent of the team goals. In 2015-16, it was then-sophomores Mitchell McLain, Tyler Spezia and Mark Friedman who gave Bergeron another third-place conference finish; scoring (the entire sophomore class) 37 percent of Falcons goals and registering 32 percent of the team's points. During the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons, while those sophomore classes were good, neither group reached the 25 percent mark in team goals or team points. This season? Bergeron's current sophomore class has accounted for 46 percent of BGSU goals and 44 percent of the team points. Those are a lot of numbers to back up what most everyone already knew- this class is special.
"It's a big class; the numbers are big and those points and stats we're talking about are primarily from the group of forwards and I think some guys get overlooked. You have Cameron Wright, Connor Ford, Sam Craggs; they are all guys who are contributing and there you have five sophomores (including Kruse and Johnson) out of our 12 forwards that dress every night. That's almost half coming from one class. It's just a big number. I've had some big classes over my time as coach, whether it be as an assistant or head coach, but not necessarily a class that has contributed this much; especially early. You look at them as freshmen and now as sophomores, nine games into their sophomore year, it's been a pretty significant contribution. It's hard to compare them to another group and they are an example of people taking advantage of an opportunity."
"This sophomore class is looked at as a talented group across the country and it's been really exciting to be a part of it, to see how much attention has been given to the group," commented Kruse, who after a successful WCHA rookie campaign, was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 NHL Draft. "To be able to thrive off each other's success and to able to look around at your fellow classmates and see their success; it motives you to push yourself even harder and pull your weight, not just for yourself but for the entire program."
"It's good to see that all of us are contributing in different ways, whether that's defending our end of the ice or putting up points, whether it's on the power play or five-on-five. We're just doing the little things to try and pump the team up," replied Johnson. "Definitely having nine sophomores has a lot to do with the success of the team. Hopefully we can just keep on contributing like we have and that will translate into wins.
"We are very close. We all get along in the locker room and a lot of guys hang out with one another," continued Johnson. "We have four hockey houses all in a row so it's nice. It gets us closer together and we like hanging out together all of the time. We have classes together which creates that bond. Living next to one another and living with each other, it definitely plays a big part in the chemistry we have on and off the ice. The atmosphere in the locker room is great. There is no negativity. It's all positive and we have a great leadership group this year, so that definitely plays a big part in our success."
Success- and excitement. There is no denying the fact that there is a certain energy surrounding Bowling Green hockey right now. It goes beyond the early-season wins, the goals and the assists. Everyone associated with the program feels that the pieces are in place for the Falcons to finally make a run at the WCHA crown, and maybe beyond. They are ready to kick the door down. Now it's just a matter of doing it.
"Obviously winning attracts fans, but I think it goes beyond that. We work really hard. We hit, we have a lot of skill, we play smart and we play fast. I think we can be the whole package and I think that's the exciting part for the fans. It's fun to watch this team right now," replied Kruse. "We have the ability to put up some big numbers against really good teams. I think all of that as a whole builds that excitement and it does a lot for our community and our program, just being able to show them that we are making steps in the right direction."
"We are still at a point where we are chasing teams like Minnesota State and Michigan Tech and people like that in our league because of the championships they have won. We have good positive momentum going and we feel good about our team this year, but it's time for us to win something and that's an area we haven't done very well in and it's an area that our fan base deserves. That's what the expectations are here," stated Bergeron. "We feel there is some momentum and it's positive right now and the players feel it. We hope it's one of the reasons players come to play at Bowling Green and become part of this program, because they want to be involved in an environment like this; a winning environment and a real positive environment where they can make an impact both on and off the ice."
Currently 1-1 after their opening weekend of WCHA play, the Falcons fly to Anchorage this weekend to face the Seawolves for two games before coming back to play Lake Superior State on November 16th and 17th.