By DAVE HANNEMAN
Findlay and Bowling Green may not be the prep hockey heavyweights that made 24 Final Four appearances and won a combined eight state titles between 1978 and 2004.
But at Huntington Bank Arena Friday night, the Trojans and Bobcats certainly played like they were.
Connor Curlis scored what proved to be the decisive goal with 2:05 to play, but this battle wasn’t over until the final bell sounded as Findlay outlasted Bowling Green, 5-4, in the Northwest Hockey Conference opener between the longtime I-75 rivals.
“No matter what the teams did last year, no matter what they’re ranked in the preseason, you just know when it’s Findlay and Bowling Green, it’s going to be a hard-fought game,” said FHS coach Joe Longo. “You just know you’re going to have to battle for every inch of ice and every goal.”
Findlay went 18-16 a year ago in a season that ended with a loss to Sylvania Northview, the eventual state champion, in the district semifinals. With 11 senior veterans and 19 total letterwinners back, the Trojans are looking for bigger and better things in 2012-13 and Friday’s battle with a solid BG team was the kind signature win that can fuel those dreams.
“We’re hoping to win the district final, get to state and hopefully win it all,” said senior forward Andy Martin, who had two goals and an assist against Bowling Green. “We’ve been on the ice every day, working hard. We’ve skated out butts off 24-7. No offense to the kids who were here last year. They played their hearts out. But we’ve worked so hard for this. We feel this is our year.”
One of Ohio’s most successful prep hockey programs, Bowling Green has made 19 state tournament appearances and brought home six state championships. The Bobcats have struggled recently, going 15-36-6 the past two seasons, and entered Friday’s game at The Cube winless (0-16-1) in their last 17 NHC games.
But BG also has Dan DeWitt as head coach. And DeWitt, who enters his 25th season with a 443-202-8 career record and 12 Final Four appearances, has a plan.
Judging by Friday’s back-and-forth battle, it’s working.
“We’re going back to basics, doing a lot of skill development on the ice and focusing more on concepts and principles instead of systems (Xs and Os),” DeWitt said. “It’s a bit of change for us, and we’re still young. Half of our roster is freshmen and sophomores.
“I told our kids I was not happy with the results, but I was certainly not disappointed in them. I thought they played their hearts out.”
With Phillip Rich converting passes from Ryan Emans, Bowling Green took a 1-0 lead in the first 75 seconds of the game and tied it 2-2 6:11 into the second period. Emans also scored on an assist from Drew Mankowski 74 seconds into the third period to force yet another tie at 3-3.
BG appeared to take a 4-3 lead on a power play goal by Oskari Kurki with 10:37 left. But officials said Kurki kicked the puck into the net, and waved it off.
“I know it went in off his skate. I couldn’t tell if it was kicked in or not,” DeWitt said. “The rule says there has to be a deliberate kicking motion. I don’t know if there was or not.”
Findlay regained a 4-3 edge when sophomore defenseman Adam Weems scored a power play goal off an assist from Martin with 7:31 left in the third period. FHS goalie Alex Woolley then stoned Rob Tyrrell on a breakaway with 5:01 on the clock, and Curlis gave the Trojans a seemingly safe cushion when he lit the lamp with 2:05 to play.
BG’s Dakota Bell wristed in a shot just 21 seconds later, though, cutting the deficit to one and triggering a frantic final two minutes.
Findlay’s defense killed off eight power play opportunities on the night, including a 6-on-4 disadvantage after BG pulled goalie Tanner Fausnaugh with a minute left, and a 6-on-3 Bobcats’ edge in the final seconds.
Bowling Green outshot Findlay 32-19. But Woolley came through with 28 saves, including a number that were outstanding.
“(Bowling Green) wanted to get us in a tight-checking game. But once we started to open it up, in the second period, it changed the game around,” Longo said.
Patrick Hall assisted on Martin’s first two goals, the first tying the game 1-1 and the second, a right-angle blast that appeared to have no way of getting into the net, to put Findlay up 2-1.
“He’s a special talent,” Longo said of his senior forward. “When he can use his speed on the outside, he’s unstoppable. When we got the puck in his hands, that really helped us open up the game.”
Ethan Willis, with Hindall and Mason Williams getting assists, put Findlay up 3-2 heading into the wild third period. Hall finished with three assists, his third, along with Lucas Karhoff, coming on the goal by Curlis that put Findlay up 5-3 with 2:05 to play.
FINDLAY JV 2, TOLEDO ST. JOHN’S 2
GOALS: (Fin) Lucas Stump, Kirby Simeon. ASSISTS: Joe Longo, Clay Robertson. GOALIE SAVES: Longo (Fin) 26; J.W. Stewart (TSJ) 21.