Taking Flight
Bowling Green's talented group of freshmen, guided by strong senior leadership, have the Falcons flying high – and looking for more
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Bowling Green's talented group of freshmen, guided by strong senior leadership, have the Falcons flying high – and looking for more

By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com

Eric Dop remembers sitting back and watching as the final seconds of the Falcons' 4-1 win over Michigan State ticked away. Not only was it his first collegiate win but the convincing victory was putting him in daydream mode for another reason. He was a freshman. Two of the four goals scored by Bowling Green came from his freshman teammates; two others notched assists. If his fellow group of newcomers could play that well in just their second game of the season, how good could this group actually be? And how good could this group actually become?

"It was a surprise for sure. Going in, I knew it would be a step up, but I didn't know how that was going to compare to all of the other college teams. After my first game, when we beat Michigan State 4-1, I was like wow; it was pretty special," recalled Dop. "I kind of noticed that our forwards were pretty good. They were really good."

Dop wasn't too shabby either, nor were the core of new defensemen skating in front of him. Now almost exactly one month later, Dop, and those who were wondering the same thing he was, are starting to get their answer. Thanks in large part to a solid group of freshmen, paired with a slew of existing talent, the Falcons have soared out of the gates on their way to a 5-3-3 overall record; and, more impressively, a mark of 4-1-3 in the WCHA. Bowling Green has been at their best recently. Over their past seven games the Falcons are 4-0-3 (tied with Colgate for the longest active unbeaten streak in the country) and have outscored their opponents during that stretch, 20-12. In those seven games, Bowling Green's freshman class has accounted for 21 points (6g-15a). In addition, between the pipes, Dop, a freshman from Lewis Center, Ohio, has gone 2-0-1 in the three games he has started and has stopped 66 of 70 shots put on net. For his efforts this season he has already been named WCHA Rookie of the Week twice. Up front, freshman wingers Cameron Wright and Max Johnson have also been recognized as the WCHA Rookie of the Week and both skaters are currently ranked in the top 13 in scoring in the WCHA.

"What we expected was that they would all get a pretty good opportunity and I feel like that's where the freshman year begins; what type of freshman year can you have? All nine of these guys had a pretty good opportunity, or at least we thought they were going to," commented Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron. "Did we think they were going to be as productive up front? We were hoping so. We knew that we did lose some points from last year but most of those points were on the back end with Mark Friedman and Sean Walker; those two guys in particular. They put up 50 points between the two of them. We knew Justin Wells and Carson Musser weren't going to do that from a points perspective, but we were hoping they would play some good minutes for us on the back end -- and they have done that. Those forwards have been good, and that's probably where most of the attention outside of Dop is going. They have all had a pretty good chance. They have been on the power play and they have played pretty much a regular shift from the beginning to today. It's hard to say that we knew they were going to be this successful in terms of contribution, but we did know they were going to get a good opportunity."

It's unchartered territory for even Bergeron- replacing that much in such a short period of time. After losing over 100 points in offense last season due to graduation or professional contracts, the veteran head coach needed to replace that firepower with something…or someone….or some group. Now in his eighth season, Bergeron knew he had skaters coming back who were capable of scoring, but more important than that; he needed returning players who were capable of leading as they would be depended on heavily to help the incoming group of newbies adjust to college hockey. Players who have been there before.

Skating to the front of the line were seniors Mitch McLain and Tyler Spezia, just to name a few. Both Falcon captains, McLain and Spezia are a part of a Bowling Green senior class that started their Falcon career with 11 players, and now, for a variety reasons, just four remain (Brett D'Andrea and Jakob Reichert are the only other seniors on the roster). McLain in particular had seen everything college hockey could throw at someone. As a freshman himself during the 2014-15 season, the Baxter, Minn. native jumped onto the college scene by scoring 10 goals and adding 10 more assists. One year later, as a sophomore, McLain tallied eight goals and eight assists. Then came last year- his junior year. McLain led the Falcons in scoring with 17 goals and 33 points. The performance earned him an All-WCHA First Team selection and solidified his identify on the team as a go-to leader for the incoming freshman class who were coming to campus the following year. His offensive production up to that point had everything to do with the type of player, and leader, he had become. Known for his work ethic, tenacity and maturity on and off the ice, Bergeron knew McLain was just the right person to help the newcomers adjust to the WCHA.

"We were told coming out of juniors that he (McLain) was a really good captain in juniors and we were excited about his future from that perspective when it came to leadership. He's an inclusive leader, he is a guy who says let's go do this together, whatever that may be, and he's a hard worker- he's a guy that brings it every day and tries as hard as he can, which is something people can follow," remarked Bergeron. "He doesn't do it without leading at the same time. It matters how his team is doing; it's not just about him. It matters to him how these freshman feel a part of it and these younger guys feel a part of it. It also matters to him that they understand the responsibility that comes with being a part of this program. We want the players teaching the (new) players about the responsibility and the expectations that come with being a part of this program and Mitchell is a guy that you start with."

"Since day one he took the freshmen under his wing, especially the forwards, and he's allowed us to grow and has given us a ton of advice. He's done a lot for us, and I think it shows with how well we have been playing and now with how well he's been playing," added Wright. "All of the upperclassmen have helped us tremendously. They bring so much leadership and so much advice. It makes us comfortable and confident to go out there and make plays, and not be too nervous or hesitant when we are out there."

"As an upperclassman looking down, those guys came well-prepared and they came with an attitude that they wanted to play, and they were going to play, and I think you see that on a daily basis. They were some of the best-conditioned guys on the team at the beginning of the year and they really elevated their game- and we needed them to elevate their game this year," stated McLain. "They are contributing big-time. I think the one thing this class has that maybe I haven't seen during my time at Bowling Green is just the confidence and readiness when it comes to playing games; it's definitely been a joy to see."

Across the board, when talking about Bowling Green's newcomers, the term "prepared" comes up in conversation. When they arrived on campus in August, they were ready to go. When the season started, they were prepared. Game in and game out, they are not just in the line-up, but are nightly contributors. Take Wright and Johnson (both freshmen wingers), for example. Johnson, who hails from Lakeville, Minn., currently ranks third in the WCHA in rookie scoring with nine points in 11 games. His seven assists put him 11th in the league overall. Always known for his scoring touch, Wright has been held off the scoresheet just three times and is averaging one point per contest – tied for fourth-best among all NCAA freshmen. The Newmark, Ontario native leads the WCHA in rookie scoring and has already posted multiple points in a game three times.

"Cameron Wright is a guy where if you look at his junior resume, offense has followed him around," mentioned Bergeron when asked about his freshman forward. "He always finds his way to points. He's not a guy that necessarily catches your eye in terms of skating where he skates past people, but he's always around the puck, he's really good on the power play, the holes in his game he seems to be working through and he's getting better. With the stuff he is good at, you just can't teach people, and we knew we were going to need him to put up some numbers."

"Where Max's game starts is how hard he works. He came in and was in great shape. He had a great summer physically, he put the time into the weight room and on the track and he's taken advantage of an opportunity," continued Bergeron. "He's got good offensive instincts. He can shoot the puck, he passes the puck really well and he's been good for us even though he only had one year of juniors, so he's really only two years removed from high school hockey. We think that Max is just scratching the surface of where he can be, and a lot of that is based on how hard he works."

"I think these young guys have a very good hockey IQ. They know the system and then they know their own game. They can read and finish plays," said McLain, commenting on this group of Falcons rookies when compared to other incoming classes he has seen. "I think that extra drive they have to get to the net and make that play; that confidence they have. Scoring points in college hockey is all about confidence, and then being able to make hard plays throughout the system. This freshman class has such confidence and they want to be scorers, and that's the thing with scorers; you have to want it."

"I've grown up my whole life wanting to score goals. I think everyone says that, but I think I've always been focused on the offensive end; sometimes that doesn't work out the best," chuckled Wright. "A lot of it comes down to preparation before the season. A lot of us came in late August and didn't know really what to expect, but with the leadership and the coaching staff we have had a lot of direction on where to go and how to play the game in the WCHA. It's been a ton of help. When October 1st came, I thought we were ready. I think the coaches have put a lot of trust in us- especially Dop, and we've helped him out, so it's been a great start to the year."

Dop, who shares goaltending duties with sophomore Ryan Bednard, has been nothing short of spectacular, posting a GAA of 1.77 (ninth-best in the country) and a save percentage of .932 (eighth); not bad for a guy wo just graduated high school a few months ago. Those numbers rank Dop first in the WCHA in both categories.

"The way we play here is pretty simple, especially for goalies. There is a reason some big-name goalies like Chris Nell and Andrew Hammond have come through here recently, and me and Bednard are near the top right now, we play pretty simple and we know our job every night," replied Dop. "That goes for all of the freshmen. We know what we have to do. We are playing with a lot of confidence."

That confidence cannot be overstated. When McLain was a freshman during the 2014-15 season, just two freshmen finished in the top-10 in team scoring for the Falcons. At the end of the 2015-16 season, only one newcomer had cracked the top-10 in scoring on the team. Last year, two freshmen were among those 10 highest-scoring Falcons. This season, although still early, four freshmen are in the top-10 on the team scoring chart, to go along with three sophomores, making Bowling Green one of the youngest, and most dangerous, rosters in the WCHA. For a team that was expected to spend the first half of their season plugging holes trying to move on from last year's departures, Bowling Green finds themselves in second place, one point behind Minnesota State in the WCHA standings.

"We knew internally it was a good freshman class. We knew that we had some good returning players back and we thought the expectations were a little higher than the people outside of our program did. We really didn't know what to expect, so it's been hard for me to compare this group, specifically to another group, other than early in our career here when we were playing a bunch of young guys, but these young guys are guys we have high expectations for," remarked Bergeron. "We think they can help us take the program to the next level, which we feel is some type of championship; that's the one thing we haven't done is win a league or playoff championship and be in the national tournament, and at least the early indicators point to the fact that this freshman class can help us get there, whenever that may be."

The rubber will meet the road this weekend as Bowling Green travels to Mankato to face the very Minnesota State team they are trying to catch in the standings. It will be the stiffest test yet for Bergeron's group of freshmen, who will have to balance confidence with pressure in a not-so-friendly environment. The last time the Falcons lost was to the Mavericks on October 20, when they fell 4-1 at home. They then rebounded the following night and defeated MSU 5-2, kicking off their current seven-game stretch without a loss. During that 5-2 win, the Falcons' freshman class accounted for three goals and five assists.