Bowling Green Falcons forward Tyler Spezia (7) celebrates his goal against the Michigan Wolverines during the first period.
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DETROIT — The Bowling Green State University hockey team exorcised some demons in its first game of 2018.
The Falcons beat Michigan 6-4 in their first-round contest Monday in the Great Lakes Invitational at Little Caesars Arena, marking the program’s first-ever victory in the tournament after four losses.
“Big picture, that’s huge,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said. “1984 was the last time this program was in this tournament, so we’re happy for the win.
“But the small-picture approach is that a win is a win is a win for us. We were just excited for the opportunity. To get a chance to take advantage of the opportunity makes this even better.”
Tuesday’s championship game will be an all-Western Collegiate Hockey Association final, as BG takes on Michigan Tech in a 6 p.m. start. The Huskies advanced to the final with a 5-2 victory against Michigan State earlier in the day.
It did get hairy for the Falcons late, as they saw a 4-0 lead early in the second period evolve into a one-goal contest midway through the third. But an empty-net goal by Lukas Craggs with just 74 seconds left helped Bowling Green claim the win.
It also helped the Falcons bounce back after a disappointing 5-2 loss to Western Michigan in their previous game.
“We were not satisfied with what happened last Thursday. That was embarrassing,” Craggs admitted. “We put together a couple of good days of practice, and I thought that carried over and made a huge difference today.”
The Falcons scored first thanks to a fine effort by Tyler Spezia in front of the Michigan net. He took a point-blank shot Jack LaFontaine stopped, but the puck bounced back onto Spezia’s stick; the senior circled the puck from forehand to backhand and flipped it into the open net at 10:11 of the opening period.
Bowling Green wasted no time making the score 2-0, as Justin Wells skated into the Michigan zone and beat LaFontaine with a wrist shot 69 seconds later.
“It brought confidence to our team, and it brought good energy,” Bergeron said of the two goals. “But I thought we also were playing hard, so it was good to be rewarded with pucks going into the net.”
The Falcons quickly doubled their lead in the first four minutes of the second.
Craggs scored his first goal of the night, when he beat LaFontaine glove side with a wrist shot just 15 seconds into the period. Then Craggs created a breakaway attempt that saw he and Connor Ford take shots at LaFontaine before Connor McDonald beat the Michigan goalie at 3:39.
“We got very confident after those goals,” McDonald said. “So we kept shooting the puck on net, and we got some bounces.”
Jake Slaker scored on a breakaway for the Wolverines with 14:36 left in the second to make the score 4-1.
It stayed that way until Michigan found its legs in the third. Slaker scored at 4:55, but Max Johnson collected a power-play goal with 12:20 left to restore BG’s three-goal advantage.
But the Wolverines weren’t finished as Ryan Bednard, who put together a strong performance in the Falcons’ net in the first two periods, saw Tony Calderone beat him at 8:05 before Jack Becker flipped the puck into the zone — only to see it go through Bednard’s hands and flutter into the net at 12:37 to make it 5-4.
Instead of caving, the Falcons seemed to control the play and allowed Michigan few chances to tie it.
“I thought we reacted to some pucks going into our net that shouldn’t have pretty well,” Bergeron said. “That’s a credit to our older guys trying to pick a teammate up and finish off something that we started.
“I thought we got better as the game went on.”
When the Wolverines pulled LaFontaine, Bowling Green continued to pressure the puck, allowing Craggs to score an empty-net goal with 1:14 left to cap the victory.
“We wish we could have had a couple of bounces back, that’s for sure,” McDonald said. “But instead of running around, I thought we stayed calm and collected and finished the game.:
Bednard finished with 27 saves for the Falcons, while LaFontaine stopped 32 shots for Michigan in a contest that allowed the Falcons to push for their first Great Lakes Invitational title while denying the Wolverines a shot at their 18th tournament crown, the most for any school since the event began in 1965.
“I think if you look at every aspect of the game, they outplayed us,” Slaker said of the Falcons. “They got more shots, more hits, and just outworked us.
“It came down to them outworking us.”
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