As was seen in the first game of last year’s best-of-three series between then-No. 1 Michigan and then-No. 12 Lake Superior State, no team is safe in the first round of the CCHA playoffs – not even at home. Even Bob Daniels, coach of this season’s top team in Ferris State, has said that he would rather have a bye and the week off going into next week’s Super Six at Joe Louis Arena than play the Lakers at home tonight.
Like the Bulldogs, the Wolverines would probably rather face Bowling Green at some other time and take their second seed into the Joe. The Falcons, who are 0-1-1 against Michigan this season, will provide more challenges for the Wolverines than their 5-20-3 record in the conference would suggest.
Michigan’s offense vs. Bowling Green’s defense: Michigan’s offense is loaded and there’s a reason why it is averaging more goals now than it was last year with Mike Cammalleri: Everyone and their brother is scoring. The Wolverines have 16 players with double digits in points – eight of them with 20 or more points, and two with more than 30. Bowling Green has just 10 players above 10 points, and no one has more than 30. The Falcons aren’t exactly stronger on defense in terms of statistics, either. In their first 26 games, they allowed six or more goals in 11 contests. Michigan has been held to two goals or less just twice this season.
With the stats alone, this looks like an unfair advantage, and that freshman Jeff Tambellini will have two four-goal nights to propel the Wolverines to the Joe. But Bowling Green has been playing solid as of late, never more apparent than last weekend’s series against Ferris State. Twice last Saturday, the Falcons kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard when Ferris State was trying to add on to its third-period lead. At the 11:24 mark, the Falcons found themselves down two men for an entire two minutes. And even with the league’s top-scoring line, Ferris State could barely muster any shots on the triangle defense of the Falcons. That penalty kill allowed Bowling Green to remain in the game and pull within one goal with 16 seconds remaining.
The Falcons also made up for their offense’s mistakes more than a lot of teams have against the Bulldogs, as they chased down every breakaway the Bulldogs had – and there were a lot – and more often than not, broke them up. They even held Ferris State’s All-Everything Superman Chris Kunitz to two assists on the weekend. Two assists? This was the same Kunitz that had six points (three in one period) in the Bulldogs’ 10-1 thrashing of Bowling Green earlier this season.
Bowling Green is now that team that can take its deficiencies and turn them into strengths. Where it got blown away at the beginning of the season, it can compete with the same team three months later. Where it gave up six goals to Michigan in the Friday meeting in November, it can come back and allow just one goal to go against it. The Falcons turn breakaway chances into opportunities to crush their opposition’s morale. So while Michigan may have the weapons, Bowling Green has enough to neutralize them. Edge: Even.
Michigan’s defense vs. Bowling Green’s offense: Bowling Green has no legitimate threats individually. It will play and succeed line by line, meaning that it will be up to the Michigan defense to make or break this series. Senior Mike Roemensky, junior Andy Burnes and sophomores Brandon Rogers and Nick Martens make a viable force at the blueline, but the other two starters are suspect at best – whom ever they are. Freshman Danny Richmond has gotten every start this year, but it is apparent that he’s still a defenseman in a forward’s body. His technique has gotten better, and he’s not afraid of getting in front of guys who are 50 pounds his better, but he’s more effective as a shooter than a defenseman right now in his young career. Then there is the rotating cycle of J.J. Swistak and Reilly Olson for the sixth spot. Neither is a great replacement for the academically ineligible Eric Werner, but they each have their bright spots. Olson has a few inches on Swistak and throws his weight around better, but Swistak – knowing he is playing in his final games – seems to be all about sacrificing his body whenever he can. That and Swistak’s ability with the puck may land him the starting role in the playoffs.
In the end, it will come down to the four who have established themselves as the most dominant starters, and that should be enough to stop a Bowling Green offense that has managed to score more than three goals just once in its past 11 games. Edge: Michigan.
Intangibles: Michigan coach Red Berenson said his team “has everything to lose” while Bowling Green “has everything to gain.” And with last year’s first-game loss to Lake Superior State, don’t expect Michigan to come out flat. A 5-1 win tonight wouldn’t be that shocking to see. But, as stated before, Bowling Green rebounds quite well. And with a coach like Scott Paluch, who was a Falcon when it was actually an honor to be a part of Bowling Green hockey, the Falcons will have a winning mentality despite their losing record. Don’t expect Yost Ice Arena to be anything new to the Falcons, as their home crowd rarely overtakes their visitors. Edge: Even.
Prediction: Michigan will come out flying tonight, and it wouldn’t be that surprising to see a new Bowling Green goalie – either Tyler Masters or Jordan Sigalet – for Saturday night. Expect tomorrow’s game to be much like the 1-1 tie earlier this season, as the Falcons will correct everything they did wrong tonight and sneak out with a win. Sunday will come, though, and the Wolverines will not lose their chances for an NCAA Tournament bid. Pick: Michigan in three games.