BEMIDJI – The scenarios are mind-boggling.
Entering the final weekend of league play, four different Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams have the chance to win the conference title and hoist the MacNaughton Cup. Not to mention the five teams vying for four more home ice slots in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, which begin next week.
But for Bemidji State, whose playoff fate has been all but sealed for a few weeks thanks to a 12-game winless streak in the second half of the season, the goal is simple: Be playing the best hockey possible to end the season. The rest should take care of itself.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re at in the standings now,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said of the Beavers’ mindset as they prepare to host second-ranked Minnesota this weekend at the Sanford Center.
“We could be 10th, 11th. Chances are we are going to be 11th. But we just want to be playing good hockey. You start playing good hockey, that’s all you can ask.”
It will be the final regular-season conference series between BSU (6-18-8, 5-14-7 WCHA) and Minnesota (22-7-5, 14-7-5 WCHA), which is departing the WCHA for the new Big Ten Hockey Conference next year.
And although the Gophers and the Beavers are both battling for playoff position – Minnesota could finish anywhere from first to sixth at the end of the season and BSU from ninth to 11th – the Beavers aren’t thinking much about how the final standings shake out when it’s all said and done.
“We’re just thinking about playing well,” BSU senior forward Aaron McLeod said. “We don’t know who we’ll be playing (in the playoffs) but we know it will be against a top-ranked team. So we know we’re going to be need to be playing good hockey going to the playoffs.”
Last weekend, the Beavers earned a point against North Dakota following a hard-fought series in Grand Forks that Serratore referred to as “playoff hockey.” He’ll be looking for more of the same this weekend against the Gophers, who have just as many weapons as UND.
“We have taken points the last three weekends, which is pretty good,” Serratore said. “Look at the teams we have beat and tied, they are pretty good teams.”
BSU took a point from Wisconsin in Madison Feb. 8-9 then returned to Bemidji to take three of four points from Minnesota-Duluth the next weekend. After a bye week BSU went into Grand Forks and, despite earning just one point, played two solid games against No. 5 UND.
“We played a good game (at UND),” BSU freshman Phil Brewer said.
“It was really strong. I thought we got it done, especially on Saturday. It’s nice coming out of there with a tie. We would have liked a win, but that’s a tough rink to play in.”
In Saturday’s game – a 2-2 tie – the Beavers were able to keep UND’s all-star top line of Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Rocco Grimaldi in check, limiting the three to just one point. Against the Gophers, who have just as many offensive weapons as UND, the Beavers will need to find a way to do it again.
“They have a lot of offense,” Serratore said of Minnesota. “Take a look up front, they have [Erik] Haula, they have [Nick] Bjugstad, they have [Nate] Condon. Take a look at their back line, they have Nate Schmidt, who is extremely dangerous. They have two highly skilled defensemen in Mike Reilly and Ben Marshall and they have a lot more offensive depth.
“They just got a lot of weapons and they want to play good hockey going into the playoffs — as we do.”
Brewer, who scored a goal in Saturday’s game against North Dakota, said the key this weekend will be clogging up the ice and taking advantage of their smaller rink. Minnesota normally plays on Olympic ice at Marruici Arena in Minneapolis.
“We’re hoping it’s going to be another tight game,” he said. “We’re going to try and play our style once again. Not let their big guns get going, not let them generate any offense. And it’s a smaller rink here than they have so we’ve gotta just shut them down as best as possible.”
However it happens, Brewer knows his BSU teammates won’t have any problems getting up for this game – it’s the last home series of the year, it’s senior weekend and, after all, it’s the Gophers.
“Oh yeah, it won’t be tough to get up for this one,” he said. “We’re expecting a nice sellout crowd. We’re hoping it gets pretty crazy in there this weekend.”