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September 29, 2023

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Familiar foes in Frozen Four

It’s no secret that the Central Collegiate Hockey Association has always been one of, if not the best, college hockey conferences in the country.

This weekend, a few CCHA teams will look to take that claim to another level.

The Frozen Four tournament will conclude on Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver, and the CCHA is ensured that at least one of its teams will be competing for the national title.

Two weekends ago, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame, all opponents of BG in the CCHA, vied with 12 other teams from around the country for a berth in this weekend’s title game.

Miami took down Air Force before falling 4-3 in overtime to Boston College, who had handily beat college hockey powerhouse Minnesota the night before.

Michigan plowed through Niagara 5-1 and shut out Clarkson 2-0 to advance to the title round.

Notre Dame easily pushed through New Hampshire 7-3, and later that night Michigan State beat Colorado College 3-1 in what was essentially a home game for the latter team at the Colorado Springs World Arena. Had the Spartans and the Fighting Irish not had to play each other in the Regional Final (a 3-1 Notre Dame win), there could have been three teams from the Falcons’ prestigious conference in the championship round.

That would have been akin to having three men’s basketball teams from the Mid-American Conference in the Final Four this past week. That’s the kind of competition that BG hockey faces every winter.

‘We knew all along that this would be a strong year for our conference,’ said BG coach Scott Paluch. ‘Four of our 12 conference teams were top 10 all year long, and now we have two of those in the Frozen Four. It doesn’t surprise me at all.’

But what could be surprising to some is how well BG played these talented teams in each game. With the exception of a forgettable series against Notre Dame at the end of January, the Falcons competed extremely well against the conference’s top dogs.

Even Michigan coach Red Berenson felt compelled to dish out praise for the Falcons after his team swept them back in December.

‘There wasn’t a lot of difference between the teams,’ Berenson said. ‘BG has such a good crowd that we had to hang in there to salvage this game.’

It’s nearly impossible to believe that Mike Krzyzewski would speak quite as highly about the BG men’s basketball team if Duke were to ever face the Falcons. This example is used because Berenson has been coaching the Wolverine hockey team nearly as long (24 seasons) as ‘Coach K’ has been in Durham.

For a legend like Berenson to describe his team’s need to ‘salvage’ a game against BG certainly casts this University in a positive light.

‘It’s a great measuring stick for people coming into the league and people who are there already,’ said former Falcon tri-captain Derek Whitmore. ‘Anyone in the Bowling Green program will have that confidence to say ‘Hey we played Michigan and Notre Dame tough, and we beat Miami.”

The Falcons certainly did, winning 4-2 over Miami on January 4th at the BGSU Ice Arena. To play the Redhawks, along with the other three title contenders, so closely in the regular season speaks volumes about the BG hockey program.

‘We’ve seen it all year long how close we are to beating those teams,’ Paluch said. ‘We’re ready to get beyond that difference from this season and give ourselves a chance to play at this time next year.’

Recently, Paluch and his assistants Doug Schueller and Todd Reirden met with their players to discuss the disparity between teams that are still playing and teams that are not.

That conversation must not have lasted very long, as the differences are seemingly quite slim.

Whitmore, now playing with the Buffalo Sabres’ AHL team and looking to make an impact in the NHL next fall, probably wouldn’t be where he was today if not for the competitiveness of the CCHA.

‘I’ve always heard throughout hockey that the CCHA is most comparable to the NHL at the college stage. Playing there the last four years really prepared me for the next level,’ Whitmore said.

Playing in such a difficult conference every year might seem daunting to some programs. Perhaps it would be better for the program to blow through a weaker conference and secure an automatic bid to the Frozen Four tournament every year?

No way, says Paluch and his players.

‘Bowling Green belongs in the CCHA,’ Paluch said. ‘We were one of the founding teams and got the CCHA on the map with national success in 1984. Those are significant milestones and we wouldn’t want it any other way.’

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