By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Last Saturday night, as the puck crossed the goal line at the 2:09 mark of the second overtime and gave Bowling Green a 2-1 win over Northern Michigan and a ticket to the WCHA Championship Game, Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron looked at his players celebrating on the ice and two distinct memories entered his mind. First, it had nearly been a year to the day (March 11, 2018) when the same Wildcat team ended his squad's 2017-18 season with a goal in double overtime in the WCHA Semifinals. The second was a flashback to the 2016-17 WCHA Championship Game when the Falcons - in double overtime - lost to Michigan Tech 3-2. He had seen the players for other squads celebrate in front of him before and now it was their turn.
"It's hard to describe the moment; you're obviously excited. We were unfortunately on the losing end of that goal last year. It wasn't in game two but it was in game three and it was in overtime. Watching them celebrate (last year) knowing that they were going to the championship game was disappointing for us," recalled Bergeron. "I was really happy for our guys. Your personal feelings are excitement and just being happy overall, but then when you think about the players and your staff; just seeing our guys celebrate was a great feeling for all of us."
"I was extremely excited," continued Sam Craggs, whose game-winning goal was his eighth tally of the season. "It was a game-winning goal but more importantly we got to move onto the championship game and knowing we get to play another weekend is exciting. I was happy for my teammates. We have all worked hard all year so it was nice to put in the goal that moved us to the next round."
Nearly eight hours away, as the Falcons jumped for joy celebrating their series sweep; the No. 2 team in the country, Minnesota State, took their typical calm, cool and business-like approach into their semifinal matchup with Lake Superior State. Already up one game to none, the Mavericks did what they do - they won. Paced by balance, a lethal power play and a freshman goaltender who has continued to turn heads across the nation; the Mavericks shutout the Lakers 2-0. The win not only gave MSU a series sweep and set them on a collision course with Bowling Green but it was also their 31st win of the year. Those 31 victories are the most by any program in the country. It also broke a school record eclipsing the previous mark of 30 wins MSU registered during the 1979-80 campaign en route to the NCAA Division II championship.
The stage is now set. Two nationally-ranked teams, one highly anticipated hockey game - with the Jeff Sauer WCHA Championship trophy at stake. For the Mavericks (No. 2 in latest USCHO.com poll, No. 3 in PairWise rankings), in addition to the trophy, head coach Mike Hastings' squad is also trying to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As for the Falcons (ranked No. 13 in the USCHO.com poll and in the PairWise rankings), they know a win puts them into the tournament. A loss could end their season. No wonder now more than ever before, the eyes of college hockey will be focused on the WCHA this Saturday night.
And why not? It's not just a championship game. From a hockey fan perspective, both Bowling Green's and Minnesota State's resumes go beyond the hardware. Maybe more than any time in the recent memory, the WCHA will showcase two power programs on the national stage. Two very similar programs who have skated their way to the WCHA mountain top using almost identical playbooks.
Just look at the numbers:
Nationally, the Mavericks enter this weekend fifth in the country in scoring (3.52 goals per game) while the Falcons are eighth (3.33). Defensively, MSU is first in goals against (1.70 allowed per game) and Bowling Green is second (1.79). Taking it a step further, the Falcons are second in penalty kill percentage (87.9 success rate) while the Mavericks are third (87.5). Bowling Green has 15 players on their roster with double-digit points; MSU has 14.
The numbers get even closer when you look at each team's starting goaltender. Minnesota State's all-everything freshman netminder Dryden McKay; who was just recently named to the All-WCHA Second Team and All-WCHA Rookie Team, has dominated between the pipes for Hastings' squad since bursting onto the scene in late November. After playing in the Mavericks' first four games, McKay took seven games off before plugged back into the line-up on December 15; taking over for Mathias Israelsson in a relief appearance against, coincidently, Bowling Green (the Falcons swept the Mavericks 4-1, 4-1 on December 14-15 at BGSU). Since that night, McKay has sat just once and has been one of the main reasons why MSU is 17-2-1 since January 4. McKay is second in the country in goals-against (1.65) and fifth in save percentage (.932). January 4 was also the only time Minnesota State has lost at home this season to this point. The Mavericks enter the title game this weekend an eye-popping 20-1-0 at the Verizon Center this year.
"The maturity of our leadership group and the examples they have set. We have had a pretty selfless group where they have been more we than me. I think that fosters a team concept that we have played with this year," stated Hastings, the 2018-19 WCHA Coach of the Year. "Then, and I think anyone will agree with me on this, we have had really good goaltending. We have had consistency out of our goaltender and when you take all of those things it's a recipe for success. Earlier this season it was Israelsson and now over the second half it's been McKay. I think a perfect example of that is when you look at the awards that went out the other day for offensive player, defensive player and goaltender of the year; we didn't have anyone recognized. Our defensemen are not leading the league in scoring. I think we have some high-end forwards; Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie have had very good years, but there are some forwards in the conference who have had better. On defense, we have played pretty much seven guys throughout the entire season and they have been very consistent but it's not like we have one guy we solely depend on. That team balance, combined with our solid goaltending, gives you an opportunity to be in every game. Our special teams have been pretty consistent also so it all plays into it."
Consistency can define Bowling Green is almost every category as well. And like MSU, the Falcons have a netminder who has gotten hot at the perfect time. Junior Ryan Bednard goes into the championship game with a streak of 12 straight starts. During that time period, Bednard and Bowling Green are 8-2-2. In addition, during that same stretch, Bednard and the Falcons haven't allowed more than three goals in a game. In the special teams department, BGSU has given up just six power goals since the first of February. In their four playoff games against Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan (both series sweeps), their opponents have had 20 chances with the extra skater and the Falcons have allowed just two power play markers. Meanwhile, with the man advantage, the Falcons have scored 14 power goals during that same time period and so far through four playoff games are 7 for 20. Bednard is currently 3rd in the nation with a GAA of 1.74 and is ninth in save percentage (.927).
"I am extremely proud of this group," Bergeron said. "The second half of the year and through six weeks we were a .500 team. I think we were 6-6 and struggling to get back to that consistency we were playing with the first half of the year. Now through 10 weeks we are 12-6-2 and have been playing pretty good, now having won back-to-back playoff series against two really good teams and one of those weekends has been on the road. I think we are playing pretty good hockey and you always want to be playing good hockey at this point in the year. Our group has had some success in the playoffs in terms of getting through a round or two in the past and overall I am really proud of the guys. They want to keep playing and they know they need to keep building on that. So far they have earned it."
Both coaches know that while they have been good, in order to take that next step and capture the trophy this weekend; they need to be even better. Despite what's at stake, the statistics that have been thrown in front of Mike Hastings and Chris Bergeron all week and the game tape they have watched from the last time the Mavericks and Falcons met in December; the game plan for each team is surprisingly simple. Those rankings, numbers and game footage tell everyone what the veteran head coaches already know - both teams are almost mirror images of one another. There are no surprises. It simply comes down to one game and the twists and turns of the puck that often happen during 60 minutes (given these two teams- most likely more) of playoff hockey. Would you have it any other way?
"We are similar I think in the fact that team balance is a strength for both of us," stated Bergeron. "We have tried to recruit this team with balance in mind. We don't have one guy we lean on or rely on. We try to do it by committee and we have to do it that way. When we don't have a lot of guys contributing that's when we struggle. We think we can defend and we think we can goaltend, but when it comes to offense, whether it be five on five or five on four; it has to be a collective effort. We have to have balance and we put this squad together with that in mind. When we are right, all of the guys are contributing and you will see that in the results. When everyone is contributing our results are pretty good and when we are relying on one or two guys the results aren't that good. We are going to need the whole group going into this game on Saturday.
"Look, they are the model program in this league and I think; potentially in the country," Bergeron continued. "What they have done the last multiple years is something that is pretty amazing. It's a tribute to Mike Hastings and his staff and what they have going there. We know how good they are and we know what we are going to get. We know how good they have played the second half of the season and remember we didn't see them during that second half. This is a very difficult challenge for us but we are excited about the opportunity."
"I don't think there are a lot of holes when you look at that team," remarked Hastings; now with 182 wins as head coach over the past seven seasons. "You start with their goaltending. Bednard is tested and he has done the job consistently when he's been in there. Their defensive core; (Alec) Rauhauser is a guy who is not only recognized as one of the best defensemen in our league but in the country. You start with him and then you have (Chris) Pohlkamp who is a shutdown defender. They have two really good freshmen back there as well so they are very deep at the blueline. Then you go and look at the talent they have throughout their lineup. They have some elite scorers in Johnson, a guy who can play anywhere in Craggs and Brandon Kruse is very elite from an offensive standpoint, so if you try to shut down one person in that operation, someone else is there to pick up the slack. It's not like you can just say let's do this one thing against them and we are going to be successful; you better to be good in all areas of the game.
"Heck, if you start adding all of that up- that's a hard out," chuckled Hastings. "Chris is a guy whose team's always play hard and that's a complement to him and his staff. They are aggressive and they are going to come at you. The way we look at it is, the last time we played them they beat us twice in their building so we haven't beaten them this year. There are a lot of things that I just discussed that concern us. We have to go out and earn everything we get. They are not going to give it to you."
The puck drops at the Verizon Center in Mankato at 7:07 p.m. CT. Until then, don't expect either coach to sleep much. Considering the excitement surrounding this game from a local and national perspective; they won't be alone.
Tick tock….tick tock….
Saturday night can't get here fast enough.