Fresh off a season-defining road sweep of Niagara, the Bemidji State men's hockey team returns to the John Glas Fieldhouse for a pair of exhibition games against the U.S. National Under-18 team this weekend.
The rare sweep of Niagara at Dwyer Arena, a first for BSU in five seasons, put a hammer lock on the College Hockey America regular season title and the number one seed in the CHA tourney.
Niagara could still claim the league title by winning its four remaining CHA games and having BSU lose its final two against Robert Morris.
For the Beavers to win the title outright all that is needed is one BSU win against visiting Robert Morris in the regular season series finale March 6-7 or one Niagara loss in the Purple Eagles last four games. Niagara travels to Robert Morris this weekend, before ending the regular season at home against Robert Morris.
If the two teams end in a tie following the regular season, the Beavers would get the first seed in the CHA Tourney because of the tiebreaker criteria. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition and BSU won the season series between the two teams 4-2.
Suddenly the Beavers' long and winding road of a 2008-09 season, which saw the team play 10 of 16 league games on the road, seems to set up nicely for the Beavers. BSU now will remain in the friendly confines of the John Glas Fieldhouse for the remainder of the regular season and through the CHA Tournament.
"The sweep at Niagara really set us up for a good finish," said BSU assistant coach Ted Belisle. "That being said, we still need to take care of our remaining games. Championships are won on the ice.
"We still have to win; we need to figure out Robert Morris."
The Beavers started their latest road trip with a loss and a tie a RMU, not exactly the way things were scripted. Just two weeks earlier BSU had swept the Colonials in Pittsburgh.
"I don't think we played poorly at Robert Morris," Belisle said, "Robert Morris just played extremely well. They definitely have the ability to generate offense and when they get good goaltending, well, you can see what happens."
The 0-1-1 start on the road trip amped up the importance series at Niagara. The Beavers responded in a major way, winning 3-1 and 4-1.
"I thought the guys were very focused heading into the Niagara series," Belisle reported. "In the end they did the little things well - limited turnovers and executed on special teams. We also received key scoring from our depth - Tyler Lehrke, Brandon Marino and Ian Lowe."
Another key was the play of sophomore goaltender Matt Dalton. "Yes, he was pretty good on the weekend," Belisle reported. "He made some very timely saves on Saturday, especially. One was a huge stop early in the second period when we were leading 1-0. When he makes saves like that it energizes the bench and gets the guys going.
"We got a couple goals shortly after that big save to make it 3-0."
Belisle reported the BSU coaching staff was understandably pleased with the sweep. "We were really happy for our guys," he said. "They earned a couple hard fought road wins.
"For the first time this season, we saw a lot of emotion from the group as a whole. That showed they were focused and that things were coming together."
Although the games against the U.S. National U-18 Team are exhibitions, that doesn't diminish their importance.
"You still want to win these games," Belisle said. "It's still very important for us to continue our streak. It's been a year of ups and downs for us. The coaching staff as a whole is pretty happy with how we're playing at this point in the season. We just need to keep building through the regular season and into the playoffs."
This weekend's games will be used partly for development, giving some underclassmen an opportunity to play in unfamiliar game situations. Back up goaltenders Orlando Alamano and Dan Bakala will see extended playing time as well.
The visitors will be far from pushovers. The Under 18 Team has a 13-11-1 record against NCAA Division I trams this season, including a 3-2 win over Colorado College two weeks ago.
"This team includes some of the best age-group players in the nation," Belisle said. "The games will present a good challenge and feature good hockey. It will be a great opportunity for the community to see some players who'll end up playing major college hockey and into the pros. The skill level is definitely there."