The old-school hockey mentality always has been that defense wins championships.
It's something that Bemidji State men's hockey assistant coach Bert Gilling believes in. And it's an attitude he has worked hard to develop among the players he affectionately refers to as the "D Corps."
The Beavers begin their quest for an NCAA men's hockey national title Thursday, facing Miami of Ohio in the first semifinal of the Frozen Four from the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.
"Our D Corps, in order to be successful in the regional, had to be warriors," Gilling said. "When you hear the word warrior you think big, strong, physically menacing-type players.
"Well, we don't have that. What we do have are guys who embrace the warrior spirit - fiercely competitive and intense, blocking shots, contesting shots, getting to pucks first, being mentally sharp and contributing on offense. That's how they've responded to the players and teams they've competed against."
The Bemidji State D Corps takes pride being the top defensive unit in College Hockey America each year - it's a major goal at the start of every season. It's measured in the scoring defense statistic. The Beavers have been tops in the league for the last seven years in scoring defense. This year's defensemen are senior Cody Bostock; juniors Graham McManamin, Chris Peluso and Kyle Hardwick; sophomores Ryan Adams and Dan MacIntyre; and freshmen Brad Hunt and Tyler Jundt.
Much has been made of the Beavers' 0-4 and then 1-6 start to the season. But Gilling said an even more telling mark was the team's defensive ranking. "At one point our defense was ranked 54th in the country," he said. "The scoring defense statistic is a lot like a grade point average. In school if you put yourself in a hole early, it's hard to scratch and claw your way out and get the GPA back up there.
"It's no different with scoring defense (goals against average). The last time I checked we were 19th in the nation (allowing an average of 2.58 goals per game). That's a huge improvement and one not easily accomplished."
Each year the Beavers have a goal of finishing in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. "Generally, if you're in the top 20 in goals-against average you're playing in the NCAA tournament," Gilling said. "We take a lot of pride in not giving up any garbage goals in the last few minutes of games that have already been decided. The guys have the mentality that every goal counts, no matter the situation."
The challenge for the Beavers now is that the remaining three teams in the Frozen Four all rank higher than them in scoring defense. "We're taking the same attitude to the Frozen Four that we had in the regional against Notre Dame," Gilling said. "They were the best defensive team in the nation over the course of the season. We looked at it as a great opportunity, another great challenge to be embraced. Cornell was another great challenge - a physically imposing defensive group.
"Well, our guys responded. I'm really happy and proud of their efforts."
One of the keys to a successful defense is having a great rapport between the defenders and the goalie. "The goalie has to know the defenders have his back," Gilling said, "and will block shots, make plays and move players from in front of the net. At the same time the defenders have to know that the goalie has them covered as well. There needs to be a good relationship back and forth - we are very fortunate to have that."
Gilling said one of his most special memories as a coach came when the Beavers posted a pair of shutouts in winning the CHA Tournament in 2004-05. "It went back to the early days of the DI program when Bill and Bryce Methven first came on board," Gilling said. "We were trying to create a mindset and the guys gradually bought into it. After we won the championship that year the D Corps grabbed me for a photo and we all held up two fingers - for posting two shutouts. I'll never for get that."
Gilling describes the current D Corps as a very coachable group that possesses a great competitive spirit. "They are very good kids, very smart kids," Gilling said. "They've come to realize individually what their strengths and weaknesses are. When they are successful they keep things simple and compete like madmen to keep the puck out of the net."
It's become a tradition that at the end of the each practice Gilling gathers the D Corps and takes some shots, having the players block them. "It's the last thing you'd think these guys would want to do after a tough practice," Gilling said. "But it's to the point now that when practice starts winding down, they'll ask if I'll do it. They love being on the ice.
"And in the last few days, for both the coaches and the players, the rink has been our salvation."