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JACK HITTINGER COLUMN: Santa gives gift of confidence to Bemidji State hockey team heading into holiday break

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I met Santa Claus last weekend at the Sanford Center. He gave me exactly what I wanted Saturday night: An overtime-free hockey game.

That’s right, readers: As the final seconds ticked off during Bemidji State’s 5-1 victory against then No. 10-ranked Denver that night, I became convinced that the big man in the red suit heard my wish.

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Mind you, I wasn’t concerned one team or the other would win – there’s no cheering in the press box and I must be impartial.

I just wanted to make sure I finished my story about the game in a timely manner. Before Saturday, four of the Beavers’ past five games had gone to an extra frame.

I didn’t want that to happen again – I hate missing deadline.

Instead, BSU ran Denver out of the building.

Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the building who had some sort of hopes for a Christmas miracle – the Beavers have been struggling this season. They’ve mixed moments of brilliance with moments of futility.

So after the Beavers rallied to tie Denver 1-1 Friday night, Saturday night’s 5-1 win was cathartic for BSU players and fans.

Beavers head coach Tom Serratore thought so.

“I just felt that it was an outstanding 60 minutes of hockey for our guys,” he said, beaming after BSU managed to steal three of four points from Denver. The Pioneers had been reeling coming into the series, but even so, most college hockey pundits predicted a sweep before the weekend began.

“Every facet was excellent,” Serratore said. “We were dialed in on power play, dialed in on PK, we forechecked well, we managed the puck.

“We got outstanding goaltending. It was a great game for our guys and an excellent Christmas present for our fans.”

Sure, the “Christmas” theme is an easy way to characterize BSU’s upset victory, but on a weekend when Santa was in attendance, why not?

It’s hardly a stretch to say the Denver series was the best of the season so far for the Beavers. And it’s a marked improvement from where they were just two weeks ago. They went to Mankato and the Mavericks took it to them, outscoring the Beavers 9-1 in the two games.

BSU played better against Minnesota-Duluth, splitting with the Bulldogs.

All of which led to last weekend’s three-point effort, including the 5-1 shellacking of the Pioneers on Saturday.

Brance Orban, who earned three points Saturday with a goal and two assists, said the Beavers haven’t changed much since losing to MSU. But their mindset is different.

“The past couple weeks, we’ve just been staying the course,” he said. “We’re finally buying into our systems. I mean, we never gave up on them, but things are clicking for us now. From Duluth to this weekend, we’ve made strides.”

The most notable stride for BSU? The penalty kill.

Normally near the top 10 in the country, this year the Beavers are just 55-for-68 (80.9 percent), good enough for 42nd in the nation.

But in the past four games BSU has only allowed two goals on the power play – one was a 6-on-4 near the end of the Minnesota-Duluth game and the other was in the middle of a five-minute major penalty against Denver.

On Saturday the Beavers blanked the Pioneers on five power play opportunities – a sign that the penalty kill is getting back to where the Beavers like it.

They’ll need it to be strong in the coming weeks.

In 2013, the Beavers play five series against ranked teams, and will face another ranked team in the second game of Dartmouth’s Ledyard National Bank Classic Dec. 30-31 in Hannover, N.H.

Dartmouth and New Hampshire are both top-ten teams in both polls, as is Western Michigan, who visits the Sanford Center Jan. 4-5.

Santa is a kind man, but he can’t change BSU’s schedule.

In other words, the Beavers might have to do a bulk of the heavy lifting in 2013 on their own.

But if the way they showed they can play against Denver is any indication, they didn’t need much help – just a little energy and motivation to put them in the Christmas spirit.

“It puts us in a good mood for break,” Serratore said. “It creates an excitement coming back. We’re excited see if we can continue this run at Dartmouth.”

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
(218) 333-9772
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