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Bemidji State goalie Dan Bakala tracks a shot during Wednesday's practice at the Bemidji Regional Event Center. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Bemidji State men's hockey season preview: BSU joins elite college hockey programs in the WCHA

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

With a new era for the storied Bemidji State men's hockey team at hand, a couple of thoughts come to mind: As a wise man once said: "The price of poker has just gone up." Or how about: "We're not in the CHA anymore, Toto."

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The Beavers are set to open the 2010-11 season and christen a new arena as full-fledged members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Friday, hosting national power North Dakota.

The opening series begins a brutal stretch of games that sees the Beavers hosting Minnesota-Duluth (Oct. 29-30) and then traveling to St. Cloud State (Nov. 5-6). All three teams have been picked to be among the elite of the WCHA this season, as well as national powers.

"It's going to be a baptism by fire as we start out our first three series playing the No. 1 (UND), No. 3 (UMD) and No. 2 (St. Cloud) teams in the preseason league polls," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "All three were ranked in the top 10 nationally preseason.

"That's the WCHA. Seven of the league teams have been ranked in the top 20 nationally. There's no such thing as a night off in this league."

Without a doubt, it's going to be a season full of challenges for the Beavers. Although BSU has been a successful NCAA Division I program for more than a decade, and has enjoyed success on the national stage, this is different. How will the Beavers hold up facing top quality teams each week with league points on the line?

"The biggest challenge is how we'll be night in, night out for 28 games," Serratore said. "This is a very tough league. It's a situation where you're ecstatic if you get a split and if you win on the road you do cartwheels - it's that tough, no question."

But hey, this is Bemidji State, a team that went 43-26-5 over the last two years. Included were a historic run to the Frozen Four in 2008-09 and a 23-10-4 record last season which saw the team earn its first ever NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Once again, this is different ... way different.

"With the WCHA, there's so much talent you're playing against - one mistake can really hurt," Serratore said. "We were able to get away with some mistakes while playing in the CHA. Well, no longer. We'll place a huge emphasis on taking care of the puck.

"There's never an off night. You have to be sharp, both mentally and physically, in every game."

That said, there is also reason for optimism. The Beavers enter the historic season with a solid core of returnees, along with some highly skilled freshmen.

Lost due to graduation were forwards Chris McKelvie and Brandon Marino, along with defensemen Chris Peluso and Kyle Hardwick.

"All of those guys played a lot of minutes and won championships while they were here," Serratore said. "They were a group of guys who knew how to win. We may not have lost a lot numbers-wise, but we did quality-wise."

The Beavers hope to offset the losses with a strong number of returning players who have seen considerable playing time over the last few years. The team's top five scorers all return, along with nine of the top 11 pointer getters

With the forward unit, highlighting the list is senior Matt Read - who last season became the second BSU player to earn All-American status in the school's Division I era. Read led the Beavers in scoring with 19 goals and 22 assist for 41 points.

In fact, the entire top line returns as Read will be flanked by senior Ian Lowe, who led the team with 21 goals last season, and sophomore Jordan George. George was second on the team in scoring last season (13-21--34) in a solid freshman campaign which saw him earn CHA Rookie of the Year honors.

The second line returns intact as well with junior Shea Walters (3-12--15) centering junior Ben Kinne (10-14--24) and senior Ryan Cramer (13-8--21).

Additional experienced forwards are senior Emil Bilberg; juniors Jamie MacQueen and Darcy Findlay, and sophomores Brance Orban, Aaron McLeod and Matt Hartmann.

Also to be figured heavily in the mix is junior Drew Fisher, who sat out last year after transferring from Minnesota.

"There's no doubt we are deepest up front," Serratore reported. "We really like our forward depth; it's the strength of the team. We like the skill set and experience of our guys. It's a good blend of skill, speed and size.

"We feel we can skate and have a very good skill set; along with some strength as well. We have some size with Cramer (6-2, 210), Fisher (6-3, 215), MacQueen (6-1, 185), and Bilberg (5-11, 195). We've typically been an undersized team, so that's good to have."

Defense, Serratore said, will be an "interesting" part of the team this season. "We have five freshmen and sophomores in the mix for playing time," he said.

The key returnee is junior Brad Hunt (7-26--33), who was third on the team in scoring last year and among the national scoring leaders among defensemen the last two seasons. Hunt will be counted on heavily to provide leadership and log a lot of important minutes this season. Also returning are seniors Ryan Adams and Dan McIntyre, junior Matt Carlson and sophomores Jake Areshenko and Brady Wacker.

"No doubt defense is an area of concern; we'll work hard on it," Serratore said. "It's a situation where we have some inexperienced people at a critical position in a very deep league that's loaded with talent.

"We're in a situation where we have to just throw them into the fire. Defense is a specialized position, no doubt. Each and every game these guys will gain some very valuable experience."

Goaltending looks to be another strength of the Beavers this season, as all three goalies are back from last year.

Junior Dan Bakala returns after a very successful sophomore year - his first as a regular. He started 30 of 36 games last season, ending with a record of 19-8-3. He had a 2.36 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

"He's our main guy in the early going," Serratore reported. "But we're also very happy with the other two returning goalies."

Sophomores Mathieu Dugas and Travis Bosch have been playing very well in preseason practice, Serratore said. "They are seeing the puck well and are quicker than last year. As a coaching staff we have confidence in all three."

With the newcomers, three forwards look to be in the mix - Jeff Jubinville (5-10, 170, Edmonton, Alberta), Garret Ladd (5-9, 180, Fenton, Mich.) and Radoslav Illo (6-0, 190, Bystrica, Slovakia).

"All three skate extremely well," Serratore said. "Illo (a fourth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers) is a power guy off the wing who shoots the puck well. Ladd and Jubinville are fast and experienced players who have seen a lot of games in the juniors.

Ladd is thick and strong, a power-type player, while Jubinville has a good skill set.

We believe all three will be pretty good players for us. They all have strengths to their game."

There also are three new defensemen on the roster - Sam Rendle (5-9, 170, Grand Rapids), Anton Racklin (6-0, 190, Gotebord, Sweden) and Kyle Brodie (6-0, 195, Northglenn, Colo.).

"Rendle has very good puck skills and sees the ice well. He could be a primary power play-type guy for us down the road," Serratore said. "However, he is young (19 years old) and it will take time.

"Racklin and Brodie both need to adjust to the speed of the game at this level. They are both works in progress."

Entering the season opener as a new member of arguably the toughest college hockey league in the nation, and opening a new building with all the assorted hoopla to boot, a lot of questions come to the forefront. How will be the Beavers react to all the distractions? How will they adjust to their new home? Do they have the mental and physical toughness to compete in the grind that is the WCHA?

Serratore wasn't able to provide many concrete answers at this point.

"We really don't know what to expect," he said. "We open our new building against UND - it's a series where we want to be in mid-season form; but we can't - we haven't had a lot of time to prepare.

"But our guys have all played a lot of hockey - we just need to let them go out there and get after it."

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