Bowling Green and Minnesota State staged an epic WCHA championship game last March in Mankato, one that still resonates today. The hometown Mavericks’ overtime thriller made last Friday’s rematch must-see TV for those who could not wedge themselves back into the Mankato Civic Center.
And thanks to one miraculous save, the script got flipped this time around.
The rankings of the two combatants were nearly identical to a season ago, with Minnesota State (entering the game 5-0-1) sitting at No. 2 in the country, while visiting Bowling Green (4-3) hovered at No. 18.
An hour before Friday’s showdown, both coaches acknowledged the shadow cast from last season’s masterpiece.
“We knew where it was on schedule,” said BGSU’s Ty Eigner. “It’s a great opportunity for us. When we played‘em last time we played really hard, but the result wasn’t what we wanted.”
“Tonight it goes back to trying to defend our home ice,” said Mavericks coach Mike Hastings, fully aware of how much the Mankato faithful helped will them over the finish line last March. “Last year it took us 58 minutes to get them involved.”
Warmups for these two WCHA powerhouses was like listening to a world-class orchestra tune up before a major concert: German national team members and MSU scoring stars Parker Tuomie and Mac Michaelis playing cross-ice catch, BGSU captain Alec Rauhauser working on his backhand saucer passes, his MSU counterpart Connor Mackey, 30 feet away, gliding effortlessly through his paces.
The respective goalies, Dryden McKay and Eric Dop, plunged themselves deep into their respective mental zones, blocking warmup shots along with every distraction.
Moments before taking the ice for opening puck drop, Eigner pleaded with his troops to manage the contest, shift by shift.
Anatomy of an upset: BGSU's Eigner-Be hard to play against. pic.twitter.com/nqg9LQNWml— Tim Rappleye (@teeraps) November 4, 2019
And like so many best-laid plans, they disintegrated from the start. Three minutes into the game, Mavericks senior Charlie Gerard found himself with a gaping net and the puck on his blade. He paused as Dop flopped, and then buried the biscuit.
Barely five minutes later, Reggie Lutz collected a world-class pass from Mackey in front of the Falcon nest, and slid the puck under the helpless Dop. The party in Mankato’s Civic Center picked up exactly where it left off last March. Counting the lightning strikes from last year’s title matchup, the Mavericks had poured in five consecutive goals in 10 minutes of playing time. The packed house roared its signature World Cup soccer chant as the Mavs lead 2-0, threatening to turn this showdown into a rout.
Mackey + Lutz = BEAUTY pic.twitter.com/Jfd4RAhwR6— Minnesota State Hockey (@MavHockey) November 2, 2019
One might have expected Eigner to call a timeout, but he let the game play on, and the Mavs continued their onslaught. Halfway through the opening stanza, Minnesota State had 10 shots, a staggering shot-per-minute ratio. After their 12th shot, everything changed.
Controlling play with a four-on-three man advantage, the Mavs’ Nathan Smith and Parker Tuomie exchanged consecutive passes across hockey‘s “Royal Road,” the imaginary line dividing the rink lengthwise. Pucks crossing this “Road” forces the goalie, in this case Dop, to shuffle across his crease, leaving swaths of net unattended. Smith’s feed to Tuomie was right in his wheelhouse, and the German sniper drove a one-timer missile destined for the vacated top shelf. Miraculously, Dop went post-to-post twice, tracking the Tuomie phaser into his glove. When the crowd finally realized that a sure goal was thwarted by Dop, they shared a moment of collective disbelief.
The game changed course. Coaches knew it, veteran journalists Shane Frederick (Mankato) and Ryan Vallon (BGSU) noted it, and the players sensed it. And when Rauhauser head-faked Mavs freshman Lucas Sowder to the ice and buried a 30-foot wrister to close out the first period at 2-1, the rest of the hockey world knew it. Despite BGSU being dominated and outshot 14-4, the Dop save stabilized the game, and the Rauhauser goal had put the Falcons right back into the contest.
“At that point we were struggling . . . we only had three shots,” Rauhauser said. “Their defender went sliding by me. I just tried to wait him out.”
The Bowling Green captain knew that his supreme goal had been overshadowed by his goalie’s monumental save.
“If they score on that one, 3-0 minutes into the game, I think it’s over,” he said.
Predictably, Bowling Green played much better in the second period, regaining momentum from three power plays and amassing 18 shots in the stanza. At the five-minute mark, Rauhauser stepped by Sowder for the second time and then danced through the Minnesota State zone. He feathered a feed to Cameron Wright for a tap-in putt. Tie game.
From that point on it was anybody’s contest; it was another close-checking affair that nearly replicated the championship tilt from eight months prior. Dop, who watched that 2019 championship from the bench, was now anchoring the blue paint for Bowling Green, turning away chances that seemed to materialize instantaneously.
Anatomy of an upset: Dop denies Spooner to maintain tie game in 'Kato. pic.twitter.com/FTHXmDuLfQ— Tim Rappleye (@teeraps) November 4, 2019
This remarkable contest — one that had been on the verge of a blowout — was now a pitcher’s duel between two of the league’s elite goaltenders, Dop and McKay. Neither one blinked. During the second intermission Eigner implored his troops to stay under control.
The margins in the final frame were razor-tight: one power play apiece, 17 shots divvied up 9-8, and no goals scored. A micro intermission at the end of regulation allowed the entire building to catch its breath, setting the stage for the exquisite agony of sudden death.
A blocked shot led to a loose puck in neutral ice, creating a final plot point to Friday’s primetime theater. Mackey was forced to trip Sam Craggs on the ensuing breakaway, resulting in a Bowling Green power play. Sixteen seconds later, Connor Ford buried the dagger, handing Minnesota State its first loss of the season. Mike Hastings was left wondering what could have been.
“Dop makes the save that keeps it at 2-0 instead of three,” said Hastings during a somber postgame interview. “You get that [lead] to three, and maybe it’s a different story. But it’s not, because it didn’t get to three. I thought Dop made a great save.”
On the other side of the arena, Eigner treated this massive win as a teachable moment.
BGSU's Eigner capping a huge upset over #2 Minnesota State Friday Night. Hero Eric Dop #31 camera right pic.twitter.com/TOAodDf62L— Tim Rappleye (@teeraps) November 4, 2019
Speaking to the media later, Eigner conceded that game nearly got away.
“At 2-0 you’re thinking, ‘How many of our guys believe we can play with Minnesota State?’ If it gets 3-0, who knows what the result is. Eric making that save, he was really good. Then we just kept playing, doing what we do. We just asked them to compete, which they did.”
College hockey teams’ identities are often shaped by early-season results. Dop’s performance in two defining road wins for BGSU — Western Michigan and now Minnesota State — have kept the Falcons over .500 and believing in themselves. Without Dop’s brilliance, including one save in particular, the Bowling Green’s season might have capsized. Instead, the Falcons celebrated Friday, turning the visitors’ dressing room sideways. Aye, Ziggy!
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.