The clichéd phrase "what a difference a year makes" perfectly describes both teams in Bemidji State's next men's hockey series.
The Beavers head south to take on heated rival University of Alabama-Huntsville in a two game series, starting tonight from the Von Braun Center. The series is an unusual Saturday night, Sunday afternoon affair.
The Beavers enter the series featuring a four game unbeaten streak, standing 3-0-1 and ranked 15th nationally. Included are a season opening sweep of Air Force (3-1, 7-3), along with a 3-3 tie and 5-0 domination on the road against Northern Michigan last weekend.
BSU's early season success stands in stark contrast to last year when the Beavers started 0-4-0 and quickly fell to1-5-0.
UAH has been resurgent this season, featuring a 3-3-0 record thus far. The early season record includes a 3-2 road victory over national power Notre Dame, followed a road sweep of Air Force (4-2, 4-2). In latest action the Broncos were swept by Western Michigan (2-1, 2-1) - cooling the hot start off a bit.
Still, the early season success constitutes a major turnaround. UAH struggled through a tough 5-20-5 season last year and didn't win three games until the end of December. Bemidji State held a 6-1-0 record against the Chargers last season.
The Beavers' three point weekend in Marquette, Mich. had both the team and coaching staff enthused. Serratore said the 3-3 tie game "was a war."
"They have a big and strong team - we were able to survive," he said. "We were fortunate to make a great play at the end and tie the score. The way the game transpired, scoring late to tie, it was a good tie. And a good tie equals a win in my book - we scored late and went into the next game upbeat and enthused."
On Saturday, Serratore said Northern Michigan just didn't have their game going. "For whatever reason, they just weren't the same team on Saturday," he said. "But then their top defender Eric Gustaffson wasn't playing, along with one of their best offensive players in Gregor Hanson.
"We were able to score a short-handed goal right away and just got stronger from there. We also played very well defensively."
Coming into the season, the Beavers faced fairly large questions marks in goal and offensively. With three inexperienced goalies on the roster it was hoped one would step up and grab the starting job. Thus far, it looks like two have stepped up.
Sophomore Dan Bakala is undefeated at 2-0-1 with a .904 save percentage and 2.28 goals against average. Freshman Mathieu Dugas was in net for the 5-0 win over NMU and became only the third goalie in BSU hockey history to record a shut out in his first collegiate game. He was the recipient of exceptional shut down defensive play by his teammates as Dugas faced only 13 shots for the game.
Offensively, the Beavers have done exceptionally well. Junior Matt Read leads the team in points with seven, averaging an impressive 1.75 a game. What Serratore hoped would happen entering the season offensively has come true - Read getting his points, upperclassmen elevating their games and receiving scoring from a number of players.
The Beavers are currently second nationally with 18 goals in four games - an impressive 4.50 average. At the same time, the Beavers have limited the opposition to just seven goals, a 1.75 per game average (eighth nationally).
Senior captain Chris McKelvie is one player who has elevated his game, sharing the team lead in goals with three, joining junior Ryan Cramer. Four other Beavers have also scored at least one goal.
"Our strong start has been like a breath of fresh air," Serratore said. "When you get off to a good start it's a lot easier being around the rink. The players buy in more to what you're trying to accomplish because they see the benefits of their hard work. Overall it's just a good feeling - for the players and staff."
Serratore also added a cautionary note. "Hey, we all realize it's a long season and there's always going to be some bumps in the road," he said. "When you start the season strong, though, those bumps when they happen, aren't as big.
"I'm very upbeat about where we are at this point. Tactically, mentally and physically - we're way ahead of last season. We're practicing hard and with a purpose. I'm a big believer in if you do that it will translate into real game situations."
Serratore reported UAH believes this is their year to have a really good season. "This is (head coach) Danton Cole's third season; the players know the systems he's installed and what to expect.
"They have a team that's difficult to play against and they're playing with a lot of confidence. UAH has won three road games so far - that says a lot."
The key to the Chargers early season success has been goalie Cameron Talbot. UAH has been outshot by a large margin -39.8 to 25.0 per game - thus far, but Talbot has stood tall. He features a sterling 9.45 save percentage and a 2.28 goal against average.
"I believe Talbot is the best goalie in our league and one of the best in the nation," Serratore reported. "He's a veteran with a ton of skill who can win games on his own."
Serratore said he couldn't overstate the importance of this series - the first conference set of the year. "With this being the last year of our league we all want to win," he said. "Our league season begins and ends in Huntsville - if we want to be successful we need to do something good against them on the road.
"It's going to be a real challenge this weekend. With an 18 game schedule, it's important to get off to a good start - there's little room for error. If we can win on the road, it forces other teams to win at our place to stay even. That's the position we want to be in."