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Bemidji State defenseman Sam Windle skates in front of BSU goaltender Jesse Wilkins as well as Michigan Tech’s Blake Hietala (20) during last Saturday’s game in Houghton, Mich. David Archambeau | Houghton (Mich.) Daily Mining Gazette

MEN'S HOCKEY: Banged-up Beavers look to finish 2013 strong against Alaska

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BEMIDJI — For most at Bemidji State, knowledge of the Alaska Nanooks likely comes via a viral video.

You know, the one where a computer-animated polar bear climbs in an F-16, carpet-bombs the campuses of various Central Collegiate Hockey Association schools before wantonly dropping a bomb inside a volcano. This, improbably, triggers a chain reaction explosion that ends in the destruction of earth.

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The polar bear then puts on sunglasses and flies through space to the timeless strains of the Kenny Loggins classic “Danger Zone”.

The video — used as a pregame introduction for the Nanooks during home games at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska — made the rounds online when it was released a few years ago.

The Beavers, though, have never had the pleasure of seeing this video in person. This weekend the Nanooks (8-8-2, 3-7-0 WCHA) meet the Beavers (5-8-5, 5-4-3) for the first time since 1984 in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at the Sanford Center. The puck drops at 7:37 p.m. tonight and 7:07 p.m. Saturday.

The two teams haven’t met since 1984 in the NCAA Division II National Championship semifinals in Bemidji. The Beavers won both games of the two-game series en route to their perfect 31-0 National Championship season.

The Nanooks jumped to Division I shortly after that and joined the CCHA, so their paths haven’t crossed until now.

“None of us have ever played them,” BSU senior center Cory Ward said. “But we know they have a lot of good players. The points are huge for both of us. I know they had a huge win their last game so they’re going to be coming in with some momentum. And we definitely think they’re better than their record.”

Although the Nanooks were picked to finish in the top half of the conference in the preseason polls they’re currently in ninth place with six points in 10 games.

BSU head coach Tom Serratore said the Nanooks have some star players who can score despite struggling in the standings, including forward Cody Kunyk and defenseman Colton Parakyo.

“The thing that I noticed on tape is they skated extremely well,” Serratore said. “And they have a couple players that are very high-end. They’ve got some marquee guys, and lots of depth up front.

“It will be interesting to see how we match up with Fairbanks. It’s a team we don’t know a lot about but I think as the game goes on we’re going to be learning a lot about them.”

Statistically, the Nanooks are tied for third in the league in scoring, netting 47 goals in 16 games. But they’re near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, having allowed 55 goals.

The Beavers have allowed just five fewer goals, but defense is something they’re working on — which was evident in last weekend’s series at Michigan Tech.

BSU tied Tech 2-2 in both games and freshman Jesse Wilkins made a combined 75 saves for the Beavers in his first-ever college games.

Serratore said he was encouraged by the defense, although it still has a ways to go — as evidenced by the fact that the Huskies outshot the Beavers nearly 2-1 (79-41). He thought Beaver defense played better on Friday than it did Saturday

“I’m happy with giving up two goals, because when you only give up two goals you’re putting yourself in a position to win,” he said. “But we gave up a lot of shots Saturday night. I felt like Friday night the shot attempts were closer. On Saturday we gave up more shot attempts and were looser defensively.

“We played pretty decently last weekend but we want to give up less shots. If we do that they won’t score as many goals.”

Freshman Jesse Wilkins will try and keep the Nanooks off the board Friday. Earlier this week Serratore said Wilkins would start Friday. He made 75 saves in both games last weekend.

Banged-up Beavers

Last weekend’s series in Houghton, Mich., was the second-straight in which the Beavers were shorthanded. This weekend will be more of the same.

With injuries to senior Matt Hartmann and freshmen Charlie O’Connor and Nate Arentz, the Beavers have just 11 healthy forwards at their disposal. That’s forced Serratore to use an extra defenseman — usually freshmen Carter Struthers or D.J. Jones — on the fourth line.

That hasn’t seemed to be a setback for anyone on that line, according to center Mitch Cain, who usually plays there.

“So far this season it’s been kinda tough with all the injuries we’ve had, but I think we’ve battled back,” he said. “Some of the other guys have stepped up to fill those roles and done a good job.”

He said Struthers, who has played the last three games in that spot, has done well filling in.

“He’s a tall guy, with big reach and he’s pretty physical,” Cain said of the lanky 6-foot-4, 205-pounds) Weyburn, Saskatchewan, native. “So he stepped in, did what he could and did a pretty good job this weekend.”

Struthers will likely need to be on call this weekend, too. Serratore said he doesn’t expect any of the forwards to be healthy Friday or Saturday.

Luckily for the Beavers, this is the final series of 2013 before the holiday break, which gives them some time to rest up before returning after the New Year.

“We’ve had to scratch and claw for some points and we’ve done that,” Serratore said. “The kids have busted their tails and found a way to get it done.

“We have two tough games this weekend then we have a few weeks off. We’ll come back and hopefully we come back healthy and go from there. I don’t think we’ve ever been this injured but the kids have done a great job working through it.”

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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.
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