It's too early to start talking about magic numbers and all, but there's no doubt the Bemidji State men's hockey team stuck a major dagger into the regular season title hopes of the rest of the College Hockey America teams with a 3-2 win over Niagara at the Glas Saturday.
The weekend sweep improved Bemidji State to 13-2-1 and 8-0-0 in CHA play. Niagara fell to 2-10-2 and 1-3-1 in CHA play. That gives Bemidji State a major 13-point cushion with 10 games left.
After failing to capitalize on three great scoring chances in the first period, the Beavers took a 2-0 lead in the second. Niagara climbed back into the game with a goal 2:44 into the third, but the Beavers responded with what turned out to be the game winner by Jamie MacQueen with just under four minutes left. Niagara then connected with an extra attacker goal at 19:17 to make it 3-2 and that's the way it ended.
"We were very fortunate to win tonight," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore. "I thought Niagara played very well. They were tough on us defensively and forechecked hard. We had a hard time sustaining any back to back shifts and couldn't get into a flow offensively.
"The bottom line is I don't know if it was our prettiest game, but the guys found a way to win. We got the first goal and played with a lead the whole way - that certainly makes things easier."
A scoreless first period saw Bemidji State generate three quality chances, but no goals. The best came with Niagara on the power play as Matt Read blocked a shot at the blue line and went in on a breakaway. He beat Niagara goalie Chris Noonan, but the puck hit the cross bar solidly and dropped in the crease.
Ian Lowe had a good chance less than two minutes in, while Lowe and George combined for another at 11:00. Lowe hit George in the crease with a behind the back, no look pass, but George slipped the shot wide.
A strong second period for the second straight night got the Beavers a 2-0 lead. It looked like it would be a game of breakaway opportunities as Jamie MacQueen went in alone from the blue line at 1:30, but shot wide.
Yet another breakaway lead to the Beavers first goal 23 seconds later. Senior captain Chris McKelvie raced to a loose puck at the red line and went in alone. He connected on a backhand to get the Beavers on the board.
The rejuvenated BSU power play accounted for the second goal. Senior forward Tyler Lehrke advanced the puck into the Niagara zone, waited and then hit Ben Kinne with as perfect pass in front as Kinne was going hard to the net. Kinne tipped it home past Noonan at 11:28 for the two goal lead.
Niagara, while not scoring on three power play opportunities in the period, get generate some quality chances. BSU goalie Dan Bakala was there on each, however, to keep the Purple Eagles off the board.
Niagara got exactly what it needed in the third period, scoring an early goal. The Purple Eagles pounced on a BSU turnover at the side of the net and Giancarlo Iurorio cashed in at 2:44 to make it a one goal game.
The Beavers got the eventual game winner at 16:15 off a 3 on 2 rush. Lehrke slid a pass in the slot to MacQueen who ripped a wrist shot past Noonan for his fifth goal of the year.
Niagara pulled Noonan for an extra attacker with under a minute left and it worked for them as the Purple Eagles' Ryan Olidis connected with 43 seconds remaining to make it a one goal game.
But the BSU defense stiffened from there to earn the victory and sweep. "We failed to clear some pucks at the end and that led to their goal," Serratore reported. "We haven't been in a situation like that all that much this year. But, the guys kept their composure and battled through it. Hopefully going through a game like that will pay dividends down the road."
Bakala was strong in net once again for the Beavers, improving his record to 10-1-1 on the year. He ended with 29 saves as Niagara held a 31-22 shot advantage.
"Bakala played well again," Serratore said. "We are very fortunate to have such a strong team defense and I can't say enough about our goaltending."
The Beavers return to action at the Glas next weekend, finishing off the pre-holiday portion of the season with a nonconference series with Minnesota State-Mankato.