Preview: Bemidji State hockey team reaches preseason goal in making WCHA Final Five, will face Minnesota-Duluth in quarterfinal

BSU's Aaron McLeod and UMD's David Grun battle for ice in front of the Bulldog net during an October game at the Sanford Center. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

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.”

Player profile: Bemidji State senior captain Matt Read an attractive NHL prospect for more than goal scoring

BSU captain Matt Read celebrates a goal against Minnesota-Duluth earlier this season with Drew Fisher at the Sanford Center. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

Matt Read was an impact freshman in his first season with Bemidji State in 2007.

He attracted a fan following for his goal-scoring abilities, but it is the other skills he developed over his BSU career that have made him a sought after prospect by National Hockey League teams today.

“He’s been the best player on our team since he came here as a freshman and that’s very uncommon. That’s why he’s a special player,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “He’s such a total player now: he’s better playing away from the puck, excellent on draws and he’s pretty good defensively.”

Take Tuesday’s practice for example. Read sacrificed his body to block a shot during a drill – something uncommon and maybe even unexpected from the leading scorer and team captain on a hockey team.

“He’s got depth to his game. Every year he’s become more and more versatile,” Serratore said. “That’s why he’s so attractive to the NHL right now because he’s an all-situation type player. He was a complete player when he came here, but he’s even more of a complete player now to the point where the game has slowed down so much for him out there.”

Read, an Ilderton, Ontario native, played every game as a freshman and led BSU in scoring with nine goals and 27 points. He was named the CHA Rookie of the Year and was invited to the Boston Bruins development camp that summer.

“Coming in here as a freshman I didn’t worry about defense, I was only worried about scoring goals and getting points,” Read said. “Over the four years we’ve concentrated a lot on defense, being in the right spots without the puck. Learning how to play without the puck is a very important role in hockey. That’s something I think I’ve figured out more in the last couple years and hopefully that can continue on.”

There was no sophomore slump for Read as he continued to lead the Beavers in scoring with 15 goals and 40 points in the 2009 Frozen Four season. He sent BSU to the NCAA Tournament by scoring the winning-goal in overtime in the CHA Championship game against Robert Morris at the John Glas Fieldhouse. He was the CHA Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Read helped put BSU into the Frozen Four at the Midwest Regional. He had a short-handed goal and an assist on the game-winning goal against Notre Dame. He also assisted on the game-winning goal against Cornell.

Read scored 19 goals in another 40 point season as a junior, was named the CHA Player of the Year and recognized as an All-American. It was also the final season at The Glas, a rink that holds special memories for him.

“Coming in here I had no clue what to expect,” Read said. “Playing at The Glas is something future Beaver players are going to miss. That’s something where you look forward to going there and having a good crowd –  probably the best in college hockey. Other teams hated to play there.”

He was disappointed the same kind of winning atmosphere did not carry over to the first season in the Sanford Center, but was appreciative of all the support the team received in this first WCHA season.

“We haven’t set that identity here at the Sanford Center yet, but we’ve had great support during all four years I’ve been here,” Read said. “I think some of that fan support has come with success and the last few years we’ve had some success. I can’t imagine a better place to play hockey than here in Bemidji.”

Despite playing in a tougher league in the WCHA and missing almost two full games at the end of this regular season to a minor concussion, Read has scored a career-best 21 goals in a 34 point season heading into this weekend’s Final Five.

Read said the transition to the WCHA was tougher than he expected.

“We lost a few players but we thought we’d have a couple other players step up and we were going to be just as good night in and night out,” Read said. “The season obviously has been tough and playing 28 games in the WCHA is not an easy walk in the park. You have to show up every night. You take one night off and you’ll get killed out there.”

Read has been an asset for the Beavers this season and seems to be around in clutch situations. He scored three of BSU’s seven goals in the playoff series victory at Nebraska-Omaha last weekend.

Read adapted well to the new competition and challenge in the WCHA.

“Playing against better players every night makes you a better hockey player,” Read said. “It’s pretty much the best college league in the states, so if you’re going to be successful in this league you’ve got to be able to find your time and be able to make plays with limited time and limited ice.”

Read was one of the most sought after juniors in the country last season and opportunities were there to begin a professional career. He participated in a number of NHL development camps, including one with the Minnesota Wild.

Read admitted it was tough to turn down offers but the decision to return was made easier because of the program’s success over the last two years.

“Everything was going great so why leave a good thing?,” he said. “I was very happy to stay here another year and so far it has been a great year for us.”

The attention from the scouts has continued strong this season for Read and he wants to continue playing beyond his record-setting career Bemidji State. He currently owns BSU’s Division I records in goals (64), assists (78) and points (142).

“I’ve been talking to a few teams every weekend and we’ll see at the end of the season what goes on,” he said. “Hopefully I get a chance to go play at the end of the year and if not, hopefully sign somewhere over the summer and continue on.”

For all Read has seen and accomplished at Bemidji State, the experience with the Final Five in St. Paul will be yet another first for his storied college career.

“I’ve never been there and really don’t have any experience with it,” Read said. “Just to go down there and see all the people – it’s the state of hockey and it’s Minnesota.  It’s something we talked about and it was our goal. We’re looking forward to going there and living in the moment.”