Bowling Green versus Northern Michigan, this is the ultimate “contender versus pretender” showdown. Due to Bowling Green’s two-month-long slide down the computer rankings, neither team has an NCAA safety net to cushion its fall from losing this semifinal. It’s a true win-or-go-home series played by worthy adversaries. This is a virtual round-of-64 NCAA matchup, a No. 8 and No. 9 seed slugging it out in a best of three. Get out the popcorn.
A single point, one-third of a WCHA win, separated these two clubs in the standings. That slender point translates into a 500-mile bus ride for Bowling Green. Maddening losses to Alabama Huntsville and Ferris, conceding two points on a home Saturday night to Alaska, eight unforgivable points conceded in their disappointing second half, will haunt the Falcons during their seven-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the Upper Peninsula.
Bowling Green punctured the top-10 in early January after a rousing sweep of then-No. 3 Minnesota State. College Hockey News writer Chris Boulay declared that only a “monumental collapse” would derail the Falcons from their first NCAA bid in 29 years. But it hasn’t been a collapse, just a steady drip, drip, drip of lost points, splitting series to inferior ranked teams, earning their campaign the moniker “Splitsville.” And unless Chris Bergeron’s club takes two games up in Marquette, Bowling Green’s NCAA drought extends to 30 years.
Causes for Falcon optimism: special teams. The Bowling Green power play, after struggling down the stretch, converted on four of seven man-up opportunities in their sweep of a decent Michigan Tech squad, their PK hummed at 90 percent. BGSU’s dynamic duo of gifted sophomores Brandon Kruse and Max Johnson, “Mr. Outside” and “Mr. Inside,” respectively, are nearly impossible to defend, Johnson in particular. Two-way defenseman Alec Rauhauser has been deserving of the weekly WCHA honors he has been receiving, and goaltender Ryan Bednard is among the league’s best.
Causes for Falcon pessimism: Inconsistency, discipline and a lost captain. Barring an emotional return, BGSU has lost their captain Stephen Baylis to an “upper body” injury. Another cause for concern is the reckless play of catalyst Lukas Craggs. The power forward with 13 goals and 112 penalty minutes, has been a double-edged sword for coach Chris Bergeron. Craggs has received multiple game misconducts for blindside hits, often with crippling effects on his team. There is ample evidence that something is askew in Bowling Green’s chemistry
Northern Michigan, on the other hand, has been fighting an uphill battle to get back into WCHA and national contention. Despite struggling to knock off the stubborn Nanooks in the quarterfinals, the Wildcats continue to make strides under second-year coach Grant Potulny. He was in danger of losing his team early in the season, dropping all of their out-of-conference games which torpedoed their NCAA at-large chances. Potulny then faced a crisis when two of his top players needed to be disciplined, and he responded by putting both Darien Craighead and Phil Beaulieu into the press box for a crucial game at Lake Superior over Thanksgiving weekend. The Wildcats responded with a gutty 2-1 win, and from that point on the team belonged exclusively to Potulny.
The reigning WCHA Coach of the Year credits senior sniper Denver Pierce as the glue who kept the club together during their rocky first half. Pierce is one of the Wildcats’ supreme scoring line that includes Adam Rockwood and Troy Loggins. That trio amassed six points this past weekend, and Loggins has rung up eight goals in the last five games. Color him clutch.
The Wildcat who wears the crown in Marquette is goaltender Atte Tolvanen, the man whose season included scoring a goal and setting every career goaltending record at Northern. But his season numbers—2.28 GAA and .918 save percentage—both fall short of his counterpart Bednard. If you must reward an edge to one team’s goaltender in this series, it would go to the visiting Falcons.
This WCHA semifinal should be a hockey fan’s fantasy: two heavy teams whose forwards bang for 60 minutes, both clubs with potent scorers and elite goaltending. But the intangibles all point north, one team on the incline (NMU), and one in a painful downslide (BGSU). You cannot underestimate the home-ice advantage the Wildcats earned in the final weekend, something every Falcon will quietly lament for 500 long miles.
There is little doubt that BGSU sophomore Max Johnson will distinguish himself up in Marquette, establishing himself as one of the premier centers in all of college hockey. But the prediction here is Northern Michigan, doing what Coach Potulny has become a master of in his WCHA playoff career: “Survive and Advance.” ’Cats in three.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.