Falcons face perenial powerhouse Spartans

Kevin Shields and Kevin Shields

Winning hasn’t come easy for the Falcon hockey team this season.

After having their best season in over a decade, finishing fifth in the league and hosting their first home playoff series since 1994, the team has struggled to find consistent play.

In some games, there has been a lack of offensive production and in others it’s been the defensive production. The Falcons (3-9-1, 3-7-1) currently rank 16th nationally averaging 3.46 goals a game, but are near the bottom of the barrel in goals against as their opponents are averaging 4.85 goals a game.

“It’s definitely been frustrating here at the beginning of the season,” BG defenseman Michael Hodgson said. “We just got to focus on coming out hard and finishing hard and playing the full 60 minutes.”

This weekend will mark the final Central Collegiate Hockey Association weekend for the Falcons before the winter break as tonight they start the first game of a home-and-home series with the Michigan State Spartans at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Mich. The teams will finish the series tomorrow night at the BG Ice Arena with both face-offs scheduled for 7:05 p.m.

Following this weekend, the Falcons will host two non-league teams in Clarkson and St. Lawrence before heading to the University of Connecticut Classic (Dec. 29-30). Their next CCHA game won’t be for another month as they’ll play Colgate (Jan. 3) to open the second half of the season before playing Ohio State on Jan. 6-7.

“It’s important that we get ourselves back in the race by earning some points,” BG coach Scott Paluch said of the weekend. “We talked so many times of the importance of staying with our pack – we just can’t get any further behind now. We need to start getting the rewards for the efforts and winning the league games.”

So far BG’s only wins have been in the league games, but their inability to produce league points has cost them as they sit in a tie for eighth place just two points from last place Notre Dame. Consequently, MSU (5-6-4, 2-4-3) also sits in the eighth place tie with BG as they’ve struggled with injuries after getting off to a good start which included a win over national runner-up North Dakota.

“The team we saw earlier in the year is the true Michigan State team,” Paluch said. “They’re deep and skilled and have two terrific goaltenders. They’re starting to get healthy again and are coming off a good tie against Minnesota.”

Just like last weekend against Miami, the Falcons will be facing the challenge of trying to squeeze pucks by the good goalie tandem of Jeff Lerg and Dominic Vicari. Both net-minders have goals against averages under three and present themselves as big in the net despite their smaller size.

“Those two are arguably the top two goalie tandem in all of college hockey,” Paluch said. “Both of those guys are similar in the fact that they move extremely well, fill-in the net and make you beat them despite not being overly big.”

Up front, the Spartans are loaded with good talented forwards that can be both physical in their play, as well as show some good skill. The other Lerg brother, Bryan, currently leads the team with 17 points.

He is joined by Colton Fretter, their leading-scorer from a year ago, David Booth, Tyler Howells, Drew Miller and Jim McKenzie.

The Spartans will be looking to slow down BG forward Alex Foster, who is leading the nation in points per game with 1.85 and in assists per game with 1.45.

Foster currently ranks second nationally in points with 24 as his four goals and 14 assists for the month of November earned him CCHA Player of the Month honors. His line mate, Jonathan Matsumoto, ranks seventh nationally with 21 points.

Despite the talent, BG has lacked special teams production in the past few weeks as the power-play struggled to a 1-17 effort against the RedHawks last week while the penalty-kill gave up four goals in 15 Miami opportunities.

“Our penalty-kill has certainly been in the ballpark, but it’s our power-play recently that has really been struggling,” Paluch said. “We’re not just struggling to score goals, but struggling to really gain an identity right now. Which is kind of strange because we have some pretty good scorers out there and just haven’t been able to put that together consistently on the power-play.”

Another thing that has been hurting the Falcons has been three checking from behind penalties the team has been called for in the last three weeks. It’s a penalty that is being enforced more as the league is trying to protect players and results in a five-minute major with either a game misconduct or disqualification.

“Obviously there is never a good time to have a five-minute major, but our timing has hurt us,” Paluch said. “I think with the emphasis on the rule in the way it’s being called, in really two of the three game misconducts we’ve had have been calls that really haven’t been called in the past. In a way it really didn’t seem like it was checking from behind, but the way it’s being called now we really have to learn in those situations that it’s going to get called.”

BG will look to correct their misfortunes against an MSU team they split four games with last year and are 4-10-1 against in their last 15 meetings.

“We’re looking for a huge turn around weekend here,” Hodgson said. “We’re a team that we know how we can play and we just got to apply it.”