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Bemidji State's Mitch Cain controls the puck behind North Dakota's net during their game last Friday at the Sanford Center. BSU travels to Fairbanks, Alaska, this week to take on Alaska in a WCHA series. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

MEN'S HOCKEY: Big final stretch begins this weekend for BSU with trip to Fairbanks

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This weekend BSU men’s hockey team embarks on its most grueling roadtrip of the season — the long jaunt to Fairbanks, Alaska, to take on the Alaska Nanooks.

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It’s supposed to be a 14-hour trip when all is said and done and the Beavers were scheduled to land in Fairbanks on Thursday morning at about 2 a.m. Alaska Time — 5 a.m. Central.

“I feel like it’s one of those things that everyone thinks it’s going to be so long that it ends up not being as bad as we think,” sophomore center Cory Ward said. “You can’t think too much about it.”

Ward, like half of BSU’s roster, hasn’t been to Alaska. The Beavers haven’t made a trek to the Last Frontier since March 2012, when they swept Alaska Anchorage in the final series of the regular season.

This year the Beavers will make the program’s first-ever trip to Fairbanks — which at 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle is the northernmost metro area in the United States — to take on the Nanooks at 10:07 p.m. today and Saturday.

Despite the long trip BSU (7-12-7, 7-7-3 WCHA) can take solace in the fact that this season they’ve been a better road team than a home team. This can partially be attributed to playing at home four more times through 26 games, but it’s still an odd quirk for a program that has historically played well in Bemidji. BSU is 4-4-3 on the road and 3-8-4 at the Sanford Center.

“You don’t like to sit there and say that because this is a great place to play and we’ve always been dominant team at home,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “But for whatever reason it’s been tough at home for us and you don’t want that. It puts so much pressure on you when you have to go on the road. You don’t like going into any weekend on the road thinking you have to win two games because it’s tough to do.”

With just four home games left on the schedule the Beavers have to pick up as many points as they can away from Bemidji.

This weekend’s series will be a good place to start — and BSU wouldn’t mind getting back at the Nanooks (9-11-4, 6-10-2) for taking three of four points at the Sanford Center in December.

“I think for sure we owe them one,” BSU forward Brendan Harms said.

“They came into our building and we weren’t happy with just a tie and a loss. It’s a huge weekend for us, not just in conference but because of those previous games we want to have a good effort, play well and hopefully get some offense.”

The teams tied 3-3 in the first game of their series before the Nanooks took it to the Beavers 5-1 in the finale. In both games that weekend, the Nanooks scored the first goal. That’s something Tom Serratore said will have to change if the Beavers want to pick up a couple wins. The same thing happened in last weekend’s series against North Dakota (UND scoring first).

“Look at the Saturday before break against Alaska. We gave up two goals, I think, in the first four minutes,” Serratore said. “You just can’t shoot yourself in the foot like that. you start behind the 8-ball. We did against UND (last weekend) and we did against Fairbanks before break.”

In order to beat UAF this time around BSU will have to shut down forward Cody Kunyk and Colton Parayko. Kunyk leads UAF with 25 points (12g, 13a) while Parayko is one of the top-scoring defenseman in the conference with 16 points (BSU’s Matt Prapavessis is first with 18).

‘Those two guys in particular are very good hockey players and they have a great supporting cast,” Serratore said. “You look at what they’ve accomplished in the last couple weeks, they have really good balance up front and two really good power play units. We’re going to have to be on our toes.”

Standings still a mess

BSU has just 10 games left to play in the regular season and is still fighting for a playoff spot in the tight WCHA standings.

The Beavers are currently in fifth place with 18 points but the margin between first place and ninth place in the 10-team league is thin. Aside from last-place Alabama-Huntsville, who has just three points, the other four teams in the bottom half of the league standings are within a point of one another.

Alaska, Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State are locked in a three-way tie for the last two playoff spots with 14 points while Northern Michigan is just behind BSU with 15.

“We look at the standings every time we come into the locker room,” Ward said. ‘Especially this late in the season. We know who we have to beat and we know what the important weekend are… and at this point every weekend is an important weekend. We have to play with the same mindset as we did last weekend like we did against UND.”

Ferris State still leads the conference with 26 points but were swept by Minnesota State Mankato last weekend, cutting the margin between first and second place to two points (although Ferris has two games in hand).

Bowling Green (21 points) and Alaska Anchorage (19 points) round out the top four home-ice spots in the conference.

Briefly: Goaltenders, injuries

Serratore said Tuesday he didn’t know if junior Andrew Walsh or freshman Jesse Wilkins would get the nod as starting goaltender this weekend.

Wilkins had started both games of BSU’s road trip to Lake Superior State and played well, earning BSU the sweep, but had an injury that forced him out of the Beavers’ series against North Dakota.

Walsh started both games and made 71 saves — including 42 in BSU’s 1-1 tie.

Wilkins has healed from his injury, Serratore said.

“I think we’ve got a good problem,” he said. “When you have two good goaltenders who are stopping pucks that’s a good problem. If we had two goalies who weren’t, that would be a bad problem.”

Serratore also said that defenseman Sam Rendle (thumb) should be back in time for the Minnesots State Mankato series Feb. 7-8.

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. 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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