When the Bemidji State men’s hockey team gathered for the first team meeting this season, reaching the Final Five was deemed the end goal for this first season in the WCHA.
And every day throughout the season, the players were reminded of the goal with a photo of the Xcel Energy Center above the entrance to the weight room.
“When everyone came on campus that was on the board: Make it to the Xcel,” BSU senior Ian Lowe said. “There’s going to be a lot of hype about it, a lot of fans around and it’s a one-game elimination tournament so anything can happen. Hopefully we can go on a little run.”
The Beavers face No. 11-ranked Minnesota-Duluth in a quarterfinal game today at 3:37 p.m. in St. Paul. The game will be televised live on Fox Sports North and broadcast on local radio station The Mix 103.7. The winner advances to face Denver in a semifinal game at 2:07 p.m. Friday.
BSU and UMD have met every season for the last 12 years and this playoff game is sure to add another chapter in a growing rivalry with the Bulldogs.
UMD appears to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. For BSU, the season will live for another night with a win and will end with a loss.
Should the Beavers win the Final Five, it would mean automatic entry in to the NCAA Tournament. Winning the Broadmoor Trophy in three games is difficult at the Final Five, but was done last season by North Dakota and in 2009 by Minnesota-Duluth. UND and UMD were the only teams to accomplish the feat since the Final Five was created in 1992-93.
“Going down there in our minds we have a chance to win this thing,” BSU captain Matt Read said. “Right now we’re playing our best hockey and we’re a team of March. We’re going to take it one game at a time, one shift at a time and hopefully come out on top the first night.”
The Beavers (14-17-5 overall, 8-15-5 WCHA) qualified for the Final Five in the first season in the WCHA by defeating fellow league expansion team Nebraska-Omaha last week in two games in a best-of-three series. The Bulldogs (22-9-6 overall, 15-8-5 WCHA) finished fourth in the league and defeated St. Cloud State last weekend in two games in a triple-overtime thriller Saturday night.
UMD and BSU last met in a two-game series this season in Bemidji on Halloween weekend and both went to overtime. UMD won the Friday’s game 3-2 on a Travis Oleksuk goal with seven seconds left in overtime. BSU earned a 1-1 tie the following night when Emil Billberg scored with 1:31 left in the third period.
When BSU head coach Tom Serratore looks back on that weekend, he noted UMD’s power play. UMD scored all four goals on the power play.
“You’ve got to shut down their power play and be aware every time 13, 22 and 37 are on the ice,” Serratore said. “You have to make them play a 200-foot game and if you turn the puck over in transition, they’re so skilled. They’re going to convert.”
Serratore was referring to the jersey numbers of forwards Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine. That line has generated 60 of UMD’s 127 goals this season and 153 points.
BSU will look to match that line with its top line in Matt Read, Jordan George and Ian Lowe, which have combined for 49 of BSU’s 84 goals this season.
“They (BSU) come at you with that top line and they are as good as anyone in the league,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. “When you think of Tom Serratore coached teams they are probably one of the hardest working teams you’ll ever play against. I think that’s been their M.O. every time we’ve played them even before they entered the league.”
BSU’s top line has been a force since it was reunited in a 4-1 win over Minnesota State University, Mankato the first week in February. It was broken up Thanksgiving weekend in an effort to spread scoring throughout the lineup, a change that ultimately did not last.
“We all just have really good chemistry together and we have to keep it going,” said Lowe, who has four goals and five assists in six career games against UMD. “Tom split us up in the middle of the season and challenged all three of us, especially myself. We took it on all three of us and we knew we had to carry the team.”
Since the line was reunited BSU has consistently played its best hockey of the year. Only four of the 12 games since then have been decided by two goals or more.
In addition to the top line, BSU junior goalie Dan Bakala has emerged in the second half of the season to lead the Beaver defense. He broke his own career marks in recent games. with 44 saves against Minnesota two weeks ago, 46 saves in last Friday’s win at Nebraska-Omaha and 41 saves in Saturday’s win.
BSU’s top line, combined with Bakala’s second half and scoring contributions from other players in the lineup guided the Beavers to their preseason goal.
Now the Final Five is here.
“First and foremost, our goal was to get to the Xcel Center,” Serratore said. “We never talked about anything else and I’m not big on goals anyway. The biggest thing you want to do is play hard, execute and have good habits. If you do those things, you hope everything else falls in to place and that’s how we operate around here. It’s an exciting challenge for us.”