College men's hockey: Defending champion Bulldogs own NCAA tournament experience edge vs. Bowling Green
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The storyline surrounding the opponent of top-seeded Minnesota Duluth this weekend is well known. While the defending national champion Bulldogs (25-11-2) are making their fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and eighth in ...
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The storyline surrounding the opponent of top-seeded Minnesota Duluth this weekend is well known.
While the defending national champion Bulldogs (25-11-2) are making their fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and eighth in the last 11 seasons, the fourth-seeded Falcons (25-10-5) will play in their first national tournament game in 29 years when the puck drops at 3 p.m. Saturday for the first of two NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals at PPL Center.
Another newcomer, third-seeded Arizona State, takes on another tournament-veteran in second-seeded Quinnipiac at 6:30 p.m. in the second semifinal.
Of the 20 Bulldogs projected to take the ice against the Falcons, there are only five newcomers. The other 15 have played a combined 78 NCAA tournament games over the previous three seasons.
Seniors Peter Krieger and Parker Mackay said prior NCAA tournament experience can be a big asset, but it may be a tad overrated, too.
After all, 11 of the Bulldogs' tournament veterans played their first four NCAA tournament games a year ago en route to winning a national championship.
"This time of year, everyone is deserving of a spot to be here," said Krieger, who played in his first four NCAA tournament games last season after sitting out the 2016-17 season as a transfer from Alaska-Fairbanks. "We like to think we put ourselves in a good spot to be here and we've worked all year to get to this point. We're just taking it a day at a time, and I know probably every other team is doing the same thing and cherishing the opportunity."
Mackay is the most experienced of the Bulldogs' skaters having played in 10 NCAA tournament games thus far. Senior wing Billy Exell, junior wing Riley Tufte and junior defenseman Nick Wolff have played in eight each.
Coach Scott Sandelin will be overseeing UMD in its 24th NCAA game in his 19 seasons on the bench. He's 17-6 all-time in those games with a perfect 8-0 mark in the regional semifinals.
Saturday will be a first for Chris Bergeron, now in his ninth season at Bowling Green, as a head coach, though he's no rookie when it comes to the NCAA tournament, either. In 10 seasons as an assistant at Miami under Enrico Blasi - who was fired after 20 seasons this month - Bergeron helped guide his alma mater to six NCAA tournament berths.
Bowling Green hired Bergeron after back-to-back Frozen Four appearances with Miami in 2009 and 2010 to rebuild a program that last made the tournament in 1990 as an at-large team out of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Back then, 12 teams were selected instead of 16, there were only two regionals - an East and West - and the first two rounds were best-of-three series at the home of the higher-seeded team. The Falcons were swept at Maine in the first round.
It's a humbling experience, Bergeron said Friday, to represent a program that was rumored to be on the university chopping block in 2009.
"I know how important this program is to a great number of people, whether they played or just cheered for the team," Bergeron said of the Falcons, who beat UMD in four overtimes in 1984 for their only national championship. "Years ago, when there was talk and rumor, those people not only cheered for us, but they fought for this program. It is a proud day for them and for all of us."
The Falcons' previous NCAA tournament win was in 1988 when they won a two-game, total-goals, first-round series at home against Vermont.
They nabbed the last at-large bid to the 2019 tournament after finishing third in the WCHA during the regular season and falling at Minnesota State-Mankato last Saturday in the WCHA postseason tournament.
Despite losses to Alaska-Fairbanks, Alabama-Huntsville and Ferris State, the Falcons secured a bid thanks to a 5-1-1 record outside the WCHA that included a home-and-home series sweep of the NCHC's Western Michigan, followed by a win and tie in a home-and-home series against Big Ten champion Ohio State.
Junior goaltender Ryan Bednard has been big for the Falcons, literally and figuratively, Bergerson joked Friday. The 6-foot-6, seventh-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2015 has led the Falcons to 20 wins with a 1.78 goals-against average and .926 save percentage - numbers that rival UMD's Hunter Shepard (25 wins, 1.87 GAA, .918 save percentage), the NCHC Goaltender of the Year and Mike Richter Award.
The Falcons have relied heavily on their penalty kill, which is second in the nation at 88.2 percent. Averaging the third-most penalty minutes per game this season at 14.5, the Falcons have had to kill off a nation-leading 187 penalties, however.
Bowling Green senior forward Stephen Baylis said he and his teammates are confident in their special teams. Down the stretch, the team has thrived off its "hot" power play and "top-notch" penalty kill, he said.
"We're going to try and tell our team that we don't want this to be a special teams battle," Bergeron said. "If there was a reoccuring theme with our group over the course of the year, more of a negative thought, we've taken too many penalties - unnecessary, undisciplined penalties - over the course of the year.
"We do have confidence in our special teams, but Minnesota Duluth is a whole other bunch of problems."
The Bulldogs come to Allentown with a power play that sits 10th nationally at 23 percent despite going just 1-for-15 in the run to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship. Going back to the 2015-16 season, the Bulldogs are 23-2-2 when scoring multiple times on power plays.
When it comes to man advantages, however, Sandelin warned to be careful what you ask for against Bowling Green, which gives opponents on average just over four power-play attempts per game.
"Their penalty kill is very aggressive," Sandelin said. "They have nine shorthanded goals so we know that we are going to be under pressure, but that is no different than the way that they play five-on-five.
"We have to manage that and make sure that we have support and we are doing the right things with the puck. We have to take advantage of getting up the rink quick. Being successful on the power play starts with winning faceoffs. If we win faceoffs, we aren't chasing pucks. We are going to have to do things a little quicker and execute to try and get some pucks on net and hopefully score some goals."
• The Bulldogs are close to getting back to full strength at the center position after both junior Jade Miller and freshman Jackson Cates practiced Friday in Allentown. Sandelin said "you'll see tomorrow" when asked if both were ready to go Saturday, and then added that Miller "is probably a little farther along, so I think that is a good sign."
COLLEGE MEN'S HOCKEY
UMD (25-11-2) VS. BOWLING GREEN (25-10-5)
What: NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: PPL Center, Allentown, Pa.
Radio: WDSM-AM 710/WDSM-FM 98.1
Internet: espn.com/watch/ (video)/kdal610.com (audio)