Meet the new WCHA: Bowling Green looks to be reversing its fortunes
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is changing dramatically next season, losing six teams and adding six more.
With that in mind, The Pioneer will be giving readers an in-depth look at the WCHA this summer so fans can familiarize themselves with the new members (and become reacquainted with the old ones) before the season begins in October.
Our series continues this week with the Bowling Green Falcons.
BEMIDJI -- If there's any team that will stand to benefit from the move to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Bowling Green State is a prime candidate.
The Falcons struggled to stay afloat in the final years of Central Collegiate Hockey Association, finishing no better than fifth in the past 10 years. It got so bad for the Falcons that at one point the athletic department considered dropping the hockey program entirely in 2008 and 2009.
Luckily for the historic BGSU program -- one that won the national title in 1984 and boasts alumni such as Ken Morrow, Kevin Bieksa and Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma -- that didn't happen. A campaign to save the team from elimination was successful and, despite some low finishes in the CCHA the past few years, Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore sees a lot of potential in the young Falcons squad.
"They've been playing some good hockey the past few years," Serratore said. "Their record might not reflect that, but they've been young and have been tested a lot."
The Falcons went 15-21-1 last season, including a 10-15-3 CCHA slate, to finish ninth in the 11-team league.
Their regular-season record wasn't good enough to earn them a first-round home series (in the CCHA the top five teams received a bye into the quarterfinals). But the Falcons did manage to knock off higher-seeded Lake Superior State in their playoff series before dropping a pair of close games in the quarterfinals to eventual league champion Notre Dame.
"They're a team that's been really close the past couple years," Serratore said. "They made it to The Joe (Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where the CCHA championships were held) a year ago. They're knocking on the door. I think they'll be competitive in the WCHA."
In 2012 the Falcons finished dead last in the CCHA and went 14-25-5 overall, but made it all the way to the CCHA semifinals. They took Michigan to double overtime but ultimately lost in the semifinal contest 3-2.
This season the Falcons have a foundation in place to be competitive in the WCHA. They lost only four players to graduation, although one -- goaltender Andrew Hammond -- was a two-year starter between the pipes.
They will return a solid forward group including leading goalscorer Ryan Carpenter and top assist man Dan DeSalvo -- both just juniors this year. Carpenter tallied 18 goals -- fourth in the league -- and 15 assists while DeSalvo assisted on 20 goals last year.
The team must take some steps to improve its power play, which was ranked near the bottom of the CCHA last season at 23-of-168 (13.7 percent). BGSU was also dead last on the penalty kill at 123-of-161 (76.4 percent).
Behind the blue line the Falcons will be without all-CCHA defender Bobby Shea, who had 20 points and blocked 50 shots last year, and Brainerd native Ryan Peltoma, both of whom graduated. But junior Mike Sullivan, was tallied 16 points and 69 blocks, and Connor Kucera, who blocked 25 shots, will return this year.
Goaltenders Tommy Burke and Scott Zacharias are somewhat untested -- Burke played in 13 games last season and Zachias didn't play.
"I think you could see as the season went on that this team just kept getting better," Serratore said, noting that the Falcons started 2-9-3 in the first two months before leveling off a bit and playing closer to .500 after Thanksgiving. "They just got better. I think they'll be a good team next season."
The Beavers will meet the Falcons just once in 2013-14, traveling to Bowling Green, Ohio, March 7 and 8 -- the final series of the regular season.