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Bemidji State's Sam Rendle, right, defends against Minnesota State's Johnny McInnis during the teams' series in Bemidji in November. The Beavers come into this weekend's series with the top-ranked penalty kill in the WCHA (and No. 4 nationally) while the Mavericks are the top power play unit in the league (also No. 4 nationally).

Marquee matchup in Mankato: BSU’s league-best penalty kill collides with instate rival MSU’s top-ranked power play

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BEMIDJI — If the Western Collegiate Hockey Association has an equivalent to last weekend’s Super Bowl, this is it.

Bemidji State, sporting the league’s top penalty kill unit, takes on Minnesota State, the WCHA’s No. 1 power play, in a league series in Mankato that’s sure to turn some heads.

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“It’s exciting. With both teams being at the top, it’s kind of a Seahawks/Broncos-type thing with offense and defense,” BSU defenseman Sam Rendle said.

Not only do the Beavers (8-13-7, 8-8-4 WCHA) and the Mavericks (15-13-0, 13-7-0) enter the series with the league’s top special teams — BSU has killed 113 of 128 penalties while MSU has scored 35 times in 145 chances — both teams’ units are No. 4 in the nation, respectively.

The Beavers’ penalty kill hasn’t allowed a goal in four games and has killed all but three penalties since the holiday break.

“Our gys have a good feeling on the penalty kill now,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “We’re first in the league, fifth in the country… but we know this is going to be a challenge this weekend. The biggest thing we have to do is stay out of the box and we won’t need to be killing penalties.”

The Mavericks have gone on a tear on the man advantage as of late — in their last 10 games they’ve only been held without a power play goal twice. And much of that can be attributed to senior forward Zach Lehrke, who has contributed 13 power play points since returning from an early-season injury in late November.

“If you take a look at what they’ve accomplished on the power play, a lot of it has been since Zach Lehrke has been back,” Serratore said. “He runs the point on that top power play. Then they’ve got Matt Leitner, who’s extremely dangerous…. they also have Jean-Paul Lafontaine, Johnny McInnes and Zach Palmquist. It’s a very good power play unit. So we have our work cut out for us.”

That unit has combined for 72 points and will pose a challenge to BSU’s seasoned penalty kill unit — although it’s one the Beavers are excited to undertake.

Lafontaine leads the WCHA in scoring with 32 points; he and BSU’s Cory Ward are tied atop the league’s goal leaderboard with 16 apiece. McInnis is third with 15 goals.

“We’re all looking forward to a new challenge,” Rendle said. “Definitely we’re going to have to step up and shut them down if we want to keep our little streak going too. If not it could lead to a difference between a win or a loss.”

“We take a lot of pride in that PK,” forward Jeff Jubinville said. “Lately we’ve been playing well but they have a lot of offensive weapons. So it’ll be a good test for us. I like the challenge.”

The Beavers have also had solid goaltending during the past month. Junior Andrew Walsh, who came into the season as the starter before losing some playing time to freshman Jesse Wilkins, has heated up again and will start in today’s game, Serratore said Tuesday.

Wilkins started the first game of BSU’s last series (Jan. 24 against Alaska) and took the 3-0 loss. Walsh started Saturday’s game and backstopped a 4-0 shutout for the split, making 25 saves.

Little separation in WCHA standings

The Beavers have just eight conference games left — that is, four weekends of play split up by one more bye week.

In that stretch BSU plays the league’s top three teams — after traveling to second-place Mankato this weekend they’ll host first-place Ferris State the weekend after. They’ll travel to third-place Bowling Green for the final weekend of the regular season.

“We know what the schedule is. It’s a tough schedule, and we know that,” Serrartore said. “The bottom line is, we just have to be prepared to play every weekend.”

And with the margin between having home-ice for the first round of the playoffs and missing out entirely razor-thin — ninth-place Lake Superior State (21 points) is five points behind fourth-place Alaska Anchorage (16 points) — the Beavers know they have to be playing their best.

“I thought it would go this way,” Serratore said. “It’s a small margin of error. We’re a whisker from home ice and a whisker from missing the playoffs. There’s about six teams in the same boat. BSU has 20 points and currently sits in a three-way tie for fifh place with Michigan Tech and Alaska — however, both BSU and Tech have two games in hand over the Nanooks. Sixth-place Northern Michigan, with 19 points has two additional games in hand over BSU and Tech.

In other words, it’s a cluster.

Rendle said the team has been doing some scoreboard-watching, especially during last weekend’s bye.

“It’s kind of intriguing,” Rendle said. “You want to see what’s going on but nothing’s changing, and nobody has really been separating. We’re all just kinda clumped in there.”

“With eight games left, a loss here or there can determine if you’re home ice or if you’re going to crack the playoffs, at this point.”

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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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