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Alaska left wing Jared Larson tries to take the puck from Bemidji State defenseman Graeme McCormack during the first period of their game Friday.

MEN'S HOCKEY NOTEBOOK: BSU glad for bye week

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BEMIDJI -- After a long trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, this week the BSU men's hockey team is ready to do something it isn't very familiar this season: Relax.

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"It's kinda different... some guys don't know how to feel this week," sophomore defenseman Graeme McCormack said of BSU's first bye week of the season. "It's a bit of an adjustment to kind of take your foot off the gas a little bit. It's nice to rest up but we're definitely thinking about this next weekend."

The Beavers (8-13-7, 8-8-3 WCHA) earned a split with the Nanooks after making their first-ever trip to Fairbanks. The Nanooks shut out BSU 3-0 on Friday but the Beavers bounced back for a 4-0 shutout Saturday night thanks to two power play goals and solid play by goaltender Andrew Walsh.

The split helped the Beavers maintain their fifth-place position in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association league standings -- they have 20 points, just behind Alaska-Anchorage's 21 and three ahead of Northern Michigan's 17.

Now back in Bemidji the Beavers are glad for some rest -- the first real time off they've had aside from the two-week holiday break.

"It would have been nice to keep it rolling but at the same time it's a bye week so you have to use it for rest," Walsh said. "We haven't had one all year. So, we want to rest the bumps and bruises and make sure nothing lingers on. Maybe use it as a week to develop things you might not normally work on... especially as a goaltender, when you're spending a full week of practice getting ready for a team you don't get as much time to do the little technical things you might normally get to do if you get more ice time."

After the bye the Beavers take on the top two teams in the league before their next off week. BSU travels to Mankato Feb. 7-8 to take on second-place Minnesota State then returns home Feb. 14-15 to host Ferris State, who is currently atop the league standings and No. 6 in the country.

"It's going to be a big challenge these next two weeks," Walsh said. "Everybody in the locker room is looking forward to it. We're trying to climb the standings and I know it's a tight pack... you don't want to lose any ground. We want to be playing our best hockey this time of year. It will be a good measuring stick of where were at going into the playoffs."

Penalty kill among nation's best

Although the Beavers haven't scored a ton this season -- their 2.61 goals per game is right around average -- the main reason for their recent resurgence is their lock down penalty kill.

BSU has killed 113 of 128 penalties this season (an 88.3 percent clip), which is No. 5 in the nation. Their 113 total penalties killed is No. 1 nationally.

"You go out there (and kill penalties) and that confidence and it keeps on building," McCormack said. "You go out there and you know they might not even get a shot on net because we're feeling so good. It's a good feeling. Then you have confidence with other guys out there on the kill with you."

"We don't look forward to killing penalties but once we get through those two minutes you feel the energy in the whole team kinda go up and move forward," Walsh added. "It's a good feeling killing one and if we can kill one right away and get some momentum it helps out a lot."

In their past eight games -- since the holiday break -- the Beavers have allowed opponents to score just three power play goals in 32 tries. In the past four games the BSU PK has been perfect -- including last weekend's 9-for-9 showing.

The PK has been awesome," Walsh said. "One of the things we do work on is up-ice, not letting teams get set up. So we don't let them get set up right away it kills a lot of time in itself."

Walsh said he's grateful that the players in front of him -- defenders and forwards alike -- are so willing to block shots. Last weekend the Beavers blocked 34 shots, including 20 in Saturday's win.

"The big thing is trying to limit the shots," he said. "I think Saturday -- and Friday too -- we weren't giving up a lot of shots on the penalty kill. And the ones we were (giving up) the forwards were doing a good job getting in front of them and blocking... and if they weren't the D-Men sure were."

With BSU's prowess on the kill so well-noted, it's not far-fetched to imagine opponents would, if it were allowed, decline a penalty rather than attempt to crack the safe the Beavers build around the goal when they're a man down.

But Walsh thinks teams like to take it upon themselves to break in for goals.

"Teams coming into the series know we've got a good PK too and it's a goal for them, I imagine, to take it as a challenge," he said.

Next week's battle in Mankato should be an interesting battle of wills.

The Mavericks have the No. 3 power play in the country (24.2 percent) and have scored 32 goals on the man-advantage -- second only to St. Lawrence's 36.

The Beavers will be ready for it.

"We spend a lot of time on (penalty kill) during the week," McCormack said. "Even the fact that it's going so good now, we won't neglect it in practice. We keep working on it every week, we really prepare for both units on the team to make sure it keeps humming."

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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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