By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Let this sink in just for a moment.
The Bowling Green men's hockey program hasn't skated in the national tournament since 1990. While there is still a lot of hockey left to be played, the Falcons currently find themselves second in the WCHA standings, the ninth-ranked team in the nation and 11th in the always crucial PairWise rankings. As a matter of fact, only four teams in the entire county have more wins than the 16 head coach Chris Bergeron and his squad has been able to muster through 25 games this year.
Lake Superior State hasn't had their NCAA tournament ticket punched since the 1996 season when they fell to Vermont in the regional finals. Now nearly 23 years later, the Lakers, just like Bowling Green, are in the conversation. LSSU skates into this weekend series with 15 wins and a grip on fourth place in the conference race along with Michigan Tech. Lake State is also ranked 18th in the nation and 19th in the PairWise.
And it doesn't stop there. Minnesota State? They are the seventh-ranked team in the nation and 8th in the PairWise standings. Northern Michigan? Third in the WCHA and with 13 wins and with a top-notch non-conference schedule on their resume; the Wildcats are right behind the Lakers in the PairWise at 21st. Bemidji State and Michigan Tech? Both programs have 10 plus wins and are ranked among the top 35 teams in the country in the PairWise heading into this weekend. Since the WCHA was realigned, there has never been a conversation about the NCAA tournament involving six conference teams this late in the season before. Just as one more point of emphasis and in an effort to truly describe just how special a season it has been for the WCHA, heading into this weekend, the conference has six teams with 10 or more wins. That is something no other conference in the nation can say. The Atlantic Hockey Conference and NCHC each have five teams with 10 plus wins. The ECAC and Hockey East conference each have four. Looking back on it, some of this was actually predicted by WCHA coaches during the pre-season media day as each bench boss raved about the strength of the conference, the non-conference schedules each program had secured and the overall talent the 2018-19 was expected to bring to the ice. While many pre-season predictions fade away as quickly as they are made, in this case, the crystal ball seems to have been right on … so far.
"I think it just shows that the conference is as strong as it's ever been and the proof is in the numbers just looking at where teams are," mentioned Bergeron. "Obviously there are still some teams who would like to be doing better - us included - but when you look at things top to bottom, it seems like it's as strong as we have seen in the five or six years the WCHA was kind of reformed. All of us get together once a year, the whole group of us in Florida, to talk about league issues. That's one of the things we talk about. We want more teams in the national tournament. We want to be recognized as a top-level league but that is something we are going to have to earn. It's important to all of us and it looks like, at least when you look at the numbers, that we have done a better job of that this year."
Some specific numbers do support the narrative. For example, last season at this time the Falcons were 12-8-6 through 26 games. This season through 25 games Bowling Green is 16-6-3. Lake State was 6-16-4 heading into the third weekend in January one year ago. This season Damon Whitten's crew is 15-7-2. Those are just two programs that have seen a tremendous jump over the last 12 months and in doing so, have thrown their hat into the postseason conversation along with Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, who always seem to have a seat at the table.
"We certainly liked our team on paper and felt that we could take a big step forward and we are doing that," Lake Superior State head coach Damon Whitten said. "It hasn't exceeded our expectations; we are where we thought we could be and where we wanted to be. Certainly we had some opportunities in our non-conference schedule where we could go out there and show that and I think we have done a good job so it's been good from a Lake State point of view, but also as a league. Minnesota State, you look at Bowling Green and Michigan Tech; we have a really good league. Bemidji got an opportunity to play out west there and they play against North Dakota every year. College hockey is full of parity and there is no reason for any of us to be surprised when it comes to the way we have played in our non-conference schedule and it's been really good for us in the league. We need to continue to do that and even get better."
To those who monitor the success of the conference second-by-second, minute-by-minute and day-by-day; the formula is very simple - the more teams in the national conversation at the end of the season the better. Many feel that one of the main reasons why league programs have been looked at more this season than in past years (and in turn recognized more) has been the WCHA's commitment to their non-conference schedule. For example, when discussing his squad's non-conference resume with Whitten, he points out that the Lakers have played the likes of Michigan (twice) and Michigan State - and have played well against them. Lake State is 2-1 against the two Big Ten programs this year and that success carries significant weight that can be applied to Lake Superior State's overall strength of schedule which factors into a team's PairWise ranking throughout the year. Bowling Green is 5-1-1 in non-conference play this season which includes two wins over Western Michigan and a win and tie versus Ohio State in late October. Bemidji State skated to a win and a tie against North Dakota in early October to go along with a tie at Air Force (a tournament team last year) in December. Northern Michigan, which has arguably played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation has a win over Michigan State on their resume to go along with one-goal losses to Cornell and Notre Dame. Then there is Minnesota State; the No. 7 team in the nation and conference leader through 26 games. The toast of the WCHA, Mike Hastings crew has rattled off two wins over Boston University, one win at North Dakota and a sweep of the University of Minnesota. The Mavericks are 5-2-1 against non-conference foes and because of that, continue to be one of the favorites to not just make the national tournament, but win it when it's all said and done.
"The Pairwise is a big part of that. Non-conference records are a big part of that too. That's really the only way to show yourself in college hockey maybe until the NCAA tournament," explained Whitten, when asked about the WCHA's growing reputation as a strong conference across the country. "Having a strong non-conference strength of schedule and winning those games is really important and then as mentioned, getting multiple teams into the tournament and then advancing. I don't think it's going to be long for Minnesota State to get there and win it all; they have done such a great job and they get there year after year. Even going back to the Edmonton Oilers dynasty they had to get there a couple times and lose to know what it takes. I think we have teams that are right there knocking at the door and we think this season could be the year where hopefully there are three or four teams that get in (into the national tournament) and maybe a couple of them can move on. Those are all steps that the conference needs to take to show our strength across the national landscape."
Bergeron, who has already been a part of a programs rise from average to awesome going back to his days as an assistant coach with Miami (Ohio) in the early 2000's, agrees.
"It's going to first of all take better non-conference records collectively and then it is going to take more than one team going to the national tournament and maybe even more than two teams going to the national tournament. Then not only that, national tournament success and we just haven't had a lot of it. We haven't had enough teams in the tournament and we haven't had enough wins once we get to the tournament," remarked Bergeron, now in his ninth season as the Falcons' head coach. "We are one of the teams who haven't even been there yet so we aren't helping. Everyone needs to do their part and do the best they can to have the strongest program, get those non-conference wins in the regular season, get to the national tournament and hopefully have some success when you get there. That's something that for Bowling Green we aren't doing our part. We need to start doing our part with that. That's the only way we are going to earn that respect nationally."
It's the thousand-pound puck on the backs of coaches across the conference that they are trying to shake; not just getting there but making noise when it matters most. Since the conference realignment after the 2012-13 season, the WCHA conference has had two teams qualify for the NCAA tournament three times (2013-14, 2014-15 and 2017-2018) but the only time a team has made it out of the first round was during the 2014 tournament when Ferris State advanced to regional final (eventually lost to North Dakota 2-1). Many coaches believe that the only way to kick that trend was to schedule stronger opponents during the year so that when March rolled around, the shift in the level of intensity, skill and competition was something teams could handle. There is little doubt that the schedule makers have done their part now it's just a matter of proving the theory works. It's a process and it doesn't happen overnight.
"I am proud of the progress our program has made but we haven't done anything; we really haven't. We have been consistent in terms of being in the conversation but that's not the goal and it's been hard. This year is proving again to be hard. The other thing our guys are getting used to, and it takes time, is understanding that the target is on our back every night now. When you are the chaser it's a little bit easier than becoming the program or the team that people are chasing and the team where you are going to get everyone's A-game. We haven't handled that great. That's something that I strongly feel that the more you are in those situations the more prepared you will be the next time and we just want to keep putting ourselves in that conversation and hopefully we decide to take advantage of that," stated Bergeron. "What Minnesota State does on a consistent basis, what Michigan Tech has done in the playoffs the last two years and what they have done over the last five years going to three of the last five national tournaments; it is very, very difficult and you have to tip your hat to those two programs in particular because they are model programs; especially the last three or four years. Ferris State is a team that has won the playoffs and has won a regular season title but those two, Tech and Minnesota State, they have been the programs everyone is chasing. The time is coming for one of these programs in this conference to break out and really make a run and I think this season is as good of a time as any."
And why not- the crystal ball has been spot-on up to this point … so far.
The audition continues this weekend as numerous teams currently at the top, or near the top, of the conference standing lock horns. Minnesota State (first) travels to Northern Michigan (3rd), Bemidji State (6th) invades Lake Superior State (tied for 4th), Bowling Green (2nd) hosts Ferris State and Michigan Tech (tied for 4th) takes the long trip to Alaska to play the always-dangerous Seawolves who would love nothing more than to play the role of the spoiler. It's an exciting time to be a member of the WCHA and the rest of the nation is noticing - and watching.