The Bemidji State men’s hockey team knew the first full regular season in the WCHA was going to be a far greater challenge than what was presented in nine years of College Hockey America competition.
The same can be said of the WCHA playoffs, which begins this weekend as the Beavers face fellow expansion member and rival Nebraska-Omaha in a best-of-three series at the Qwest Center for the right to advance to the Final Five in St. Paul next weekend.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament in the CHA required only two wins in the conference tournament to earn the automatic bid. In the WCHA, the automatic bid takes a minimum of four victories and as many as six in the span of eight days.
“We went in thinking there was a great chance we could win,” Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said of the CHA playoffs. “This is a lot tougher right here and your mindset is a little different. Sometimes we could play average and still win. That doesn’t happen anymore. We can play great and still lose. That’s this league: the toughest in college hockey and maybe the second best league in the world.”
BSU and UNO will play at 7:37 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday and 7:07 p.m. Sunday (if necessary). The Beavers (12-17-5 overall, 8-15-5 WCHA) finished the regular season 10th out of 12 teams and Mavericks (21-13-2 overall, 17-9-2 WCHA) finished third.
What makes this first-round pairing intriguing is the record between the two clubs in this first expansion WCHA season: BSU did not lose against UNO and were 3-0-1 in the four games against the Mavericks this season.
“We’ve had success against Omaha but we’re sure not going to sneak up on them,” Serratore said. “They’re going to overly prepare for us this weekend, that’s for sure … They’ve done some different things over the last couple of weeks that we’ve seen on tape, so you just have to make sure you are prepared for everything.”
The two teams first met in Bemidji the weekend of Dec. 4-5 and the Beavers earned the sweep by 3-0 and 3-1 scores. In the rematch in Omaha in January, the teams tied 2-2 the first night and BSU won in overtime 3-2 the second night.
A big key for the Beavers in the season series was Dan Bakala, who faced over 30 shots in three of those games and stopped 130 of 135 total shots in the four games.
BSU captain Matt Read scored the winning goal in overtime back on Jan. 15. His status for this weekend is in doubt with an undisclosed injury that forced him out of the third period of last Friday’s 3-3 tie with Minnesota and all of last Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Gophers.
Serratore did not have any updates on Read’s injury at this week’s press conference and said he would be a game-time decision for Friday’s series opener.
“Obviously it’s noticeable when Reader’s out of the lineup because he plays almost 30 minutes a game at center and does a lot of things for us not just offensively but defensively,” BSU forward Ryan Cramer said. “When he’s out there he’s on the offensive end, we missed out on that but also guys picked it up. We were able to bring a pretty good pace to the games.”
UNO may have been the surprise team of the WCHA in the regular season. The Mavericks earned its third-place finish with a dominating start and finish to the season.
The Mavs began the season by winning nine of its first 12 games to reach the No. 4 ranking in the country by the time it came to Bemidji in December. UNO won eight of its final 11 games and now ranks No. 12 in the country.
The Mavericks feature a deep roster as Matt Ambroz (17 goals, 34 points) leads a team where nine players have 20 or more points on the season. BSU has just three players over 20 points this season.
“It’s one matchup we’re pretty comfortable with because we know how they play,” BSU defenseman Dan MacIntyre said. “They’re pretty aggressive and we’ve had some good games against them. They’re not very lopsided so it will be a good hard-fought series.”
The winner of the series will play Thursday in the first of three straight days of WCHA hockey at the Final Five in St. Paul.
Other first round series this week pit No. 12 Michigan Tech at No. 1 North Dakota, No. 11 Minnesota State and No. 2 Denver, No. 9 St. Cloud State at No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth, No. 8 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 5 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin at No. 6 Colorado College.
BSU and Omaha recognize each other as rivals so the series should be heated and competitive.
“There’s always a lot of excitement for the playoffs, especially this year,” UNO defenseman Michael Young said to the Omaha World-Herald earlier this week. “The way we’ve been losing to Bemidji, the way we’ve played against them before — we want redemption. We want payback, and we’re going to get it.”
In a season of firsts and a career of historic moments for this season’s BSU senior class, Cramer knows the opportunity for another first – a Final Five – is attainable with a series victory over the Mavericks.
As Cramer talked about the matchup Tuesday afternoon at the Sanford Center, he glanced at the large picture of the Xcel Energy Center above the entrance to the weight room.
“It’s been a goal since the beginning of the year to get to St. Paul,” Cramer said. “That’s what everyone is thinking and there is no doubt – we’re going there to win two games. Hopefully we can do it Friday and Saturday.”
Links and such
Here’s my story on the Bemidji State seniors that ran in Thursday’s Pioneer. The six players reflect on what has been a historic era for the program. They’ve been through a Frozen Four, the final season in the CHA and the first season in the WCHA.
In BSU recruiting news this week, the Beavers have received a verbal commitment from Cody Strang. The Madison, Wis. native was Wisconsin’s Mr. Hockey in 2009.
The All-WCHA Teams were announced Thursday. The list is here.
The games this weekend will not be televised, but can be seen for a fee at www.b2livetv.com. Lakeland Public Television news director Dennis Weimann said the 10 p.m. newscast is expected to have highlights from Friday’s game and also again on Monday’s newscast.
The series can be listened to free of charge on local radio station The Mix 103.7 and online at www.beaverradionetwork.com
Hockey news from Omaha
Some Omaha reading from Chad Purcell at the Omaha World-Herald:
What are the Maverick fans saying about the series? Visit www.mavpuck.com
Apologies go to the normal readers of my blog. I usually dig out as much league news as I can to share with you on Fridays. But I’m leaving Bemidji early Friday morning and so I can get to Omaha in time to cover the games. It expect it to be a long trek so I need some suitable rest.
I will bring you news out of the series here and on www.bemidjipioneer.com. Follow me on twitter during the game @estromgren and Come back here after the games for a recap and to see extra photos from the game in a gallery.