Bowling Green loaded into their brand new sleeper bus on Wednesday for the long journey west on I-90 to Mankato to take on Minnesota State this weekend for the first time as WCHA rivals.
The two teams aren't quite in opposite positions compared to their preseason expectations, but this series certainly does have a different look than many expected when the schedules were first released. Minnesota State was expected to be the flag-bearer of the new WCHA. Instead, the Mavericks are sitting at 3-3-0 on the season. Bowling Green was expected to be improved, but still fighting it out in the middle of the WCHA. But the Falcons now sit at an overall record of 4-2-2, and after sweeping Alaska-Anchorage last weekend to open conference play, have designs on making a run at a conference championship.
The key difference between the two teams has come with the man advantage. Bowling Green is converting on the power play 22.2% of the time, including four goals each from Bryce Williamson and Ben Murphy, which puts each tied for the national lead in power play goals. Minnesota State only has three power play goals total on the season in 34 opportunities for a dismal 8.8%.
Playing in Mankato should help the Mavericks, however. MSU is perfect at home this year, winning a pair of games against Connecticut. Bowling Green has yet to win on the road, taking a tie and a loss in a road trip to Union, and losing to Ohio State in Columbus.
In goal, Bowling Green is likely to give one start each to sophomore Tommy Burke and freshman Tomas Sholl. Minnesota State's Stephon Williams hasn't looked quite the same as he did in the second half of last year after having off-season hip surgery. Freshman Cole Huggins got his first career start last Saturday at Bemidji. He played a strong game, and could continue to push Williams for playing time.
Injuries have also played a significant role in each team's season. Bowling Green has been playing all year without their leading scorer from last year, Ryan Carpenter. Carpenter is close to returning after having surgery to repair a broken finger in October, but did not travel with the Falcons this weekend. Minnesota State has had a hard time staying healthy all year. Matt Leitner will return to the line-up after missing last weekend, but Mike Huntebrinker is now out with a broken arm. The defense is starting to thin out as well. Senior Josh Nelson is out for an extended period with a hip injury, while freshman Carter Foguth won't play this weekend with a foot injury. All told, the Mavericks head into the weekend with only 19 healthy, eligible skaters to pick their line-up from.
It's early in the season, but whichever team wins this series has to be feeling a lot better about their chances in the WCHA. If Minnesota State can take three or more points, they'll likely feel like they've righted the ship to some extent. Three or more points by Bowling Green, and they'll be out to an early lead in the WCHA standings and feeling like they can compete with and beat anybody in the league, while it becomes panic time for a Minnesota State team with lofty preseason expectations.
The two teams will face off Friday at 7:30 CST, and 7pm on Saturday night. We'll have live coverage of the Saturday night tilt. Follow @SBNCollegePuck or @ChrisDilks on Twitter for updates from the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato.
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