When Bemidji State and Minnesota square off at Mariucci Arena Saturday and Sunday, one team comes in off a 2009 Frozen Four appearance and featuring a top 10 ranking in the country along the with longest unbeaten streak in the nation.
No, it isn't the Golden Gophers.
It's the Bemidji State men's hockey team that brings a No. 7 national ranking and an unblemished 7-0-1 record into the much anticipated nonconference series. One of the elite programs in the nation, the Gophers enter the series 3-4-1 after opening the season with eight straight games against very tough WCHA competition.
Minnesota opened with a series in Grand Forks with UND recording an opening night 4-0 win. The teams tied 3-3 in the series finale. Minnesota was then shocked with a pair of 3-0 home losses to Denver, marking the first time in nearly 80 years since the Gophers were shut out in back-to-back games. After sweeping Alaska-Anchorage, the Gophers split in Madison last weekend against Wisconsin losing 4-2 before rebounding for a 5-2 win.
Win-loss records aside, BSU head coach Tom Serratore didn't mince any words when talking about the upcoming series. "This is the biggest challenge, our biggest test of the season," he said. "It's exciting to play them. We have so many alumni in the Twin Cities, plus the games will be televised statewide. The visibility and exposure for BSU will be tremendous."
The Beavers are coming off an impressive sweep of CHA foe Robert Morris, winning the opener 2-0 before turning in a dominating 6-1 decision the next night.
"It was a good weekend for us," Serratore reported. "I thought we played four good periods of hockey. For the first two periods on Friday night I didn't think we played with a purpose. But the third period and through the entire game Saturday we played well."
The sweep got the Beavers off to an impressive 4-0-0 start in the CHA, putting the pressure on the other league teams to keep up. But the sweep also extended the Beavers win streak to a nation's best five games.
"It was also important for us to go into the Minnesota series undefeated," Serratore said. "That has kept the interest level for the games very high."
The Gophers feature their typical wealth of talent, featuring 20 National Hockey League draft choices -- including four first rounders -- on the roster. "That tells you a lot about the talent level of the team," Serratore reported.
"They are a very difficult team to play against, especially on the Olympic ice in Mariucci. They spread it out on the big ice and have the ability to find the seams then make plays. Once they get it torqued up, they get the crowd going and create momentum for themselves."
Senior forward Tony Lucia has been the Gophers' hottest player the past two weeks with nine points in the last four games. He had a goal and three assists most recently against Wisconsin and a five point weekend against Alaska-Anchorage. Lucia is tied with Mike Hoeffel for the team lead in goals with four and leads in points with nine.
Junior goaltender Alex Kangas was recently recognized as WCHA Defensive Player of the Week after posting a career-high 45 saves in the 5-2 win at Wisconsin. Overall, Kangas is 3-3-0 with a .933 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average.
Minnesota has averaged 2.4 goals per game this season, while allowing 2.6. Minnesota has also been out-shot consistently 33.9 to 26.5.
One real oddity for Minnesota comes on special teams play. Oddly, the Gophers have scored more shorthanded goals than power play goals this season. Minnesota leads the nation with three shorthanded goals, but are just 2-for-35 (5.7 percent) on the power play.
"They've been struggling on the power play, hopefully that can continue for another week," Serratore said with a chuckle. "Once they get it going they have the talent to score quickly."
"We understand the difficulty in playing a team like the Gophers, especially on the road," Serratore reported. "But playing games like these will make us a better team."
When playing high caliber teams like the Gophers, one major key is minimizing mistakes, Serratore continued. "In order to be successful we will have to take care of the puck, play with a purpose and play with intensity.
"When you have lulls, that's when you get in trouble. A team like the Gophers can turn things against you in a real hurry."
Another key will be responding after a goal against. "I think the Gophers in Mariucci are one of the best teams in terms of really cranking things up once they have scored," he said. "The crowd gets rolling and the Gophers feed off the intensity. We'll really have to maintain focus both after we score and they score."
As always, the outcome of the game will more than likely come down to who gets the best goaltending and special teams play.
"We couldn't have asked for a better start," Serratore reported. "We scored late in the game for the 3-3 tie and came out on top of two 2-1 overtime wins. Have we played the same caliber teams as the Gophers to this point? No. But we aren't going to apologize for our record."
Getting the season off to a fast start provides many benefits, Serratore continued. "It really takes the pressure off," he said. "You don't feel like you need to press and catch up with wins. Everything is easier for the players and coaches."
Another important factor is that the quick start has been great for the BSU goaltenders. "We came into the season with inexperienced guys and didn't really know what to expect," he said. "But after the fast start our goalies have great confidence now. That's such a vital part of the team and the season. When coaches and players believe in the goalie everything flows better."
BSU continues to rank high in national statistical categories. In the team category, the Beavers lead he nation in scoring defense, allowing just 10 goals for a 1.25 average. The scoring offense at 3.75 ranks seventh.
In special teams play, the Beaver penalty kill features a 90 percent success rate (36 of 40) to rank fourth in the nation. The team winning percentage of .938 (7-0-1) ranks second.
Individually, sophomore goalie Dan Bakala ranks in all major categories - 1.40 goals against average (fourth), .946 save percentage (fourth) and .929 win percentage (6-0-1) is fifth in the nation.
Junior Matt Read with seven goals and seven assists in eight games ranks fourth in points per game (1.75) and seventh in goals per game (.88). Sophomore defender Brad Hunt is seventh in points per game among defenseman at 1.25 (1-9--10) and assists per game at 1.12. Freshman Jordan George is eighth among rookies nationally at 1.12 points per game (4-5--9).