BEMIDJI – For what might well be the final time, Bemidji State hosts nationally-ranked Denver this weekend at the Sanford Center.
The Pioneers, who come into this weekend’s series as No. 10 in one poll and No. 11 in another, are among the teams leaving for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season.
That doesn’t make BSU’s games against the Pioneers – scheduled for 7:37 p.m. today and 7:07 p.m. Saturday – more important for the Beavers. They want to knock off the Pioneers no matter what.
“You get more excited as a hockey player to play teams like that,” BSU freshman forward Cory Ward said of the Pioneers. “Then you take into consideration how important points are every weekend. We lost a few against teams we could have beaten, so winning a couple against Denver would be huge, especially going into break. We want to go into break on a good note.”
The Pioneers (9-5-2, 7-5-2 WCHA) are on top of the WCHA standings with 16 points – this despite the fact that they haven’t won a game since Nov. 17.
The Beavers, meanwhile, sit in 11th place in the league after splitting with Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. They improved their overall record to 4-8-2 and are 3-7-2 in the conference.
It will take a few wins in a row for the Beavers to escape the bottom half of the conference, but earning some points against Denver will surely life BSU’s spirits heading into the holidays.
“They’re a threat every time they’re on the ice,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said of Denver. “Their power play is extremely dangerous and they have a lot of talent up front.
“And their defensive corps is maybe the deepest in WCHA. There’s a lot of offense generated from that back line.
Denver forward Nick Shore has scored 19 points this season (six goals, 13 assists), while Chris Knowlton has 17 points (nine goals, eight assists).
Defensemen Joey LaLeggia (15 points), Nolan Zajac and David Makowski (10 points each) have all scored double digit points.
Despite the fact that the Pioneers haven’t won a conference game since mid-November, they can still score; in fact the Pioneers are tied for second in the NCAA with 57 goals scored.
“Take a look at their goals scored and goals against, that’s an indicator of why they’re the No. 1 team in the WCHA,” Serratore said.
“Earlier on in the season they were just thrashing teams… averaging six goals a game or something. They’re still dangerous.”
The Pioneers currently average 3.56 goals per game, but their goal differential (0.94) is among the best in the country.
And part of that has to do with their success on the power play. Denver is 14-for-69 (20.3 percent).
The Beavers’ penalty kill had been struggling, but last weekend against Minnesota Duluth the penalty unit went 4-for-5. The only goal BSU gave up was late in the game on the 6-on-4; UMD had pulled its goaltender and scored to pull within 2-1.
BSU defenseman Matt Prapavessis said he thinks the Beavers are getting back to where they have been on the penalty kill – but Denver’s power play unit will be a true test.
“They have a lot of guys that can score,” said Prapavessis, who notched two assists in BSU’s Saturday win over UMD. “I think (Denver has) a lot of defensive guys who score on the power play, so we’ve got to be aware of that. I think it’s just being patient. We’re going to work all week in practice on it, but it’s getting better.”
NOTE: The BSU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will host its annual Teddy Bear Toss in conjunction with a hat and mitten drive for this weekend’s series.
Fans are encouraged to bring new, or gently used, stuffed animals wrapped in a clear plastic bag, to Saturday’s game.
When the Beavers score their first goal, those in attendance will have an opportunity to toss their teddy bear donation(s) onto the Sanford Center ice.
BSU athletics faithful are also encouraged to bring winter hats, mittens, gloves and/or other cold weather gear to contribute to at the main gate as they enter Sanford Center both today and Saturday.
All items collected will go directly to local charities and will be distributed to children and Bemidji area residents in need this holiday season.