Bemidji State senior Matt Francis didn't start out his final college season the way he expected. But that made the storybook finish at the end of the season even more special.
A transfer from St. Cloud State, Francis had to sit out a year before resuming his playing career at BSU.
"It was tough," Francis said. "The guys and the coaching staff made me feel very welcome, but it was hard not being able to contribute during games or even travel on the road trips. It was almost like I wasn't a member of the team."
Francis really started contributing is his first year at BSU, in 2007-08. He ended the year with five goals and 10 assists for 15 points. He also ended the season as a plus-5 on the plus/minus scale.
That set up what was supposed to be stellar senior season. However, just two days before the regular season opener, Francis suffered a separated shoulder. The injury sidelined him for the team's first seven games.
"I was thinking, 'oh boy, here we go again," said Francis. "I really didn't want to sit out another year."
Fortunately, Francis was able to come back from his injury rather quickly, and ended up playing in all of the team's final 27 games through the regular season and league playoffs. At this point, his 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points rank him fourth overall on the team.
"My first game back was the early series we had in Niagara," Francis reported. "I got the chance and really wanted to show the coaches I was ready. Fortunately that was what happened." Francis had an goal and an assist in a 3-1 Beaver win.
After playing on the second and third lines for the next couple series, Francis was put together with sophomore Matt Read and senior Tyler Scofield.
A number of different combinations were tried during the early part of the regular season, but when Francis was placed on the top line - things really started to happen.
"Nothing had been really clicking," Francis said with a smile. "But then I got the chance and we just clicked. Those aren't bad guys to play with (the multi-talented Read and Scofield). We started making plays and capitalizing on opportunities."
Funny the way some combinations just end up working well together.
What was the spark on the top line?
"Well, we're older guys so we know the systems well," Francis said. "We all know where we're supposed to be and our roles. I just try hard to make smart plays and chip in on offense when I can. I'm not going to dazzle anybody with my speed, so I concentrate on making good plays."
Francis more than chipped in, as he more than doubled his career goal output in one season.
In his three previous seasons, two with SCSU, Francis scored a total of five goals. He had 12 this year, including three game winners and seven multi-point games.
One of the reasons for the increased goal output was that Francis started spending a lot of time in front of the net.
"After three years of not scoring much, I finally figured out if I spent more time living near the paint I get better chances.
"Sure, you take a lot of lumber working in front of the net. But when the team scores, it's worth it."
The Scofield-Read-Francis line now enter the NCAA Midwest Regional today in Grand Rapids, Mich. against Notre Dame as one of the hottest lines in college hockey.
The line has accounted for 14 goals and 12 assist for 26 points since March 7 - nearly 75 percent of BSU's total output on offense during that span.
So far, with a College Hockey America regular season championship and a league playoff title in the books, Francis said that this has been his most enjoyable season thus far.
"Winning the CHA playoff tournament was almost a relief," Francis said. "Hosting the tournament, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. If you talk to anyone in our locker room they'd tell you anything less than winning the tournament would have been disappointing."
Now on verge of playing a huge game on a national stage, Francis said the Beavers are both excited and prepared.
"We want to take advantage of this big opportunity," he said. "We're here to be the first senior class at Bemidji State to win an NCAA tournament game. Notre Dame has a heck of a team, but we're going in thinking we can play with any team in the country. We know we have to limit our mistakes and capitalize when we get the opportunity. Notre Dame probably won't give us many, but we know we have to be ready.
"We know if we don't bring our best game, it's probably going to be a long night."
Francis said he could sum up his three year experience at Bemidji State in one word - fun.
"Playing at the John Glas Fieldhouse was being like a kid again," he said, "competing a small arena and playing in front of people you know. After the game when you went up to the concourse, people were always waiting there, ready to give you a pat on the back. The whole experience was wonderful."
Francis is "one of the most special kids I've coached at Bemidji State," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "Since he was a transfer I wanted to do all I could to make sure he felt welcomed and that he belonged.
"Its great he's had a wonderful senior year. He found a spot with Scofield and Read; when we put them together it was instant chemistry. I'm really happy for him."