Fresh off a weekend that saw them defeat the nation's top ranked team, the Bemidji State men's hockey team returns to the John Glas Fieldhouse tonight for a key early season series against top foe Niagara.
Following a 3-2 victory over Miami at the Subway Holiday Classic in Grand Forks, the Beavers (11-2-1, 6-0-0 CHA) moved to the top five of the national polls. BSU is currently ranked fourth in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine pool and fifth in the USCHO/CBS poll.
Niagara started the season with a brutally tough schedule, playing four teams ranked among the top 20 nationally. The Purple Eagles struggled to a 0-8-1 start, which included losses to Colgate, Michigan, Cornell and UMass.
Niagara has started to right the ship recently, however, going 2-0-1 in its last three games.
"Niagara had a very tough schedule to start out," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "They lost some tight games against very good competition. Their last three games were more like we all expected from them. We have so much respect for that program; it's great to see them on the upswing now."
Thus far, it seems to be a season of "monumental" wins for the Beavers. Serratore used the term when the Beavers defeated Minnesota in November and again last weekend in the victory over Miami.
"There was such a huge build up for that game," Serratore said, "from both the press and our players. I don't think we could have played any better. We limited their chances and capitalized on our opportunities; we took care of the puck and got great goaltending when we needed it. We didn't allow much easy ice and when you play that way, you'll win a lot of games."
"It was a great win for the program, the fans and the area. It's so great to see the excitement build with this team."
It was a different story in a 2-1 overtime loss to Ohio State the next night.
"When you get off to a great start to the season like we have, great expectations come with it," Serratore reported. "We know there will be times when we lose during the season, but when it happens we want to at least put ourselves in a position to win.
"We didn't do that against Ohio State. There wasn't a lot of gas left in the tank, for whatever reason. Plus, Ohio State has a very talented team."
Starting 6-0-0 in the CHA has given the Beavers a nice cushion over the rest of the field. Niagara currently stands in second at 1-1-1.
But that cushion could evaporate quickly if the Purple Eagles come in find success at The Glas.
"Every game is meaningful when you only have an 18 game conference schedule," Serratore reported. There's a lot on the line this weekend. We can stretch out from the field a bit or the race could get a whole lot tighter.
"Niagara has a physically strong team that can be very difficult to play against. They are also deep and talented."
The Purple Eagles are led offensively by senior Chris Moran who leads the team with 14 points on two goals and 12 assists. Senior Ryan Olidis leads the team in goals with seven, while freshman Brent Vandenberg is second with five.
Junior Adam Avramenko has seen the majority of time in goal and features a record of 2-2-2 with a .916 save percentage and 2.62 goals against average.
As a tram, Niagara has averaged 2.8 goals per game, while allowing 3.2.
"For us the story is going to be the same as it's been all season," Serratore said. "We want to work hard to take care of the puck and limit our errors. Hopefully, the guys will have confidence playing at home. At the same time I hope they realize that in college hockey there is a very small margin of error.
"I guarantee that with this strong start we have a major bull's eye on our backs. Niagara will be ready to throw everything at us."
As should be expected with a team ranked in the top 5 nationally, the Beavers are among the leaders in several national statistical categories.
The Beavers remain the top defensive team in the nation, allowing just 1.71 goals per game (24 goals-14 games). Offensively the Beavers rank seventh, averaging 3.79 goals per game.
The Beavers are also first in scoring margin at 2.07 (difference between scoring offense and scoring defense). The team winning percentage of .821 stands second.
Junior Matt Read continues to gain the attention of the national college hockey world. He is seventh in points per game (10-11--21, 1.50), 13th in goals per game (0.71) and tied for first in game winning goals with three.
Sophomore Brad Hunt is fourth in points per game among defensemen (5-11--16, 1.14), while freshman Jordan George is third among rookies (6-11--17, 1.21).
In goal, Dan Bakala is third in winning percentage (8-1-1, .850), fourth in save percentage (.935) and fourth in goals against average (1.68).