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Bemidji State’s Radoslav Illo looks to make a pass during last Saturday’s game against Lake Superior State. Illo scored his first goal since returning from injury in the game and the Beavers won 2-1 in overtime. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

MEN'S HOCKEY: Ranked Miami making first trip to Bemidji since 2009 Frozen Four

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BEMIDJI — Bemidji State and Miami of Ohio are separated by four states and 900 miles. They’ve never been in the same conference and have met just six times in their history.

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Despite this, the programs have a connection that won’t be soon forgotten by players, coaching staffs and fans alike — the 2009 Frozen Four.

“We played them a couple years in a row, and played them a lot as of late in some pretty big games,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said of the RedHawks. “So I think our fans will know what Miami’s about and I think they’re excited for the series as we are.”

Although the RedHawks beat the Beavers 4-1 in the national semifinal game in 2009, ending BSU’s Cinderella run early, Serratore said seeing those red and white jerseys on the ice whenever they play Miami still resonates after all these years.

“That resonates with our fans, and it resonates with me too,” Serratore said. “It’s a link they can never take away from you. Miami might be kind of far away and they’ve never been in a league of ours but they’re a team that our fans know a lot about and likes to play.”

The teams met again in 2010, in North Dakota’s Thanksgiving Tournament, and the Beavers traveled to Oxford, Ohio, in 2011.

This weekend, the RedHawks (7-6-1) come to Bemidji for the first time since the Frozen Four for a nonconference series at the Sanford Center (7:37 today, 7:07 p.m. Friday). It’s the first nonconference series for the Beavers (5-7-2) since they hosted Minnesota Oct. 18-19.

Miami comes to town as one of the top teams in the country (No. 12 or No. 13, depending on which poll you look at).

At one point the RedHawks were No. 1 overall; they were also voted to win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in that league’s inaugural year.

“We don’t know a lot about them, but we know they have a lot of skilled guys and they’re a pretty good team,” BSU senior forward Radoslav Illo said.

The RedHawks have one of the top offenses in the nation (45 goals in 14 games) and are led by the dynamic duo of Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik. The forwards are tied for 12th in the nation in scoring with 19 points apiece; Barber leads the team with nine goals and Czarnik has 12 assists to lead the team.

But the RedHawks have a ton of proven scorers beyond those two; 15 different players have at least a goal.

“They’re really dangerous offensively and have an abundance of depth up front,” Serratore said. “(Barber and Czarnik) are two really good players, but they have an abundance of good players. I could start naming them off… but they have a lot of jam up front. They’ve got speed, they’ve got skill and they’re very very dangerous.”

Illo glad to be back

After missing a significant chunk of October and November with an injury, Illo finally found his way back into the lineup last weekend against Lake Superior State. The senior from Bystrica, Slovakia, scored a goal in Saturday’s game, his first since Oct. 18 against Minnesota.

“It was nice to be back on the ice and start playing,” Illo said. “The past month was pretty frustrating. It’s stressful to just watch the games but it was nice to get back out there.

“I felt a little more comfortable playing the second game than the first one so it’s good to be getting back in a rhythm.”

Illo is a key component of the Beavers’ power play and Serratore called his return a “big shot in the arm.”

“Rado’s a big strong kid and he adds a dimension of speed,” Serratore said. “He helps our pace and our strength. Shoots extremely well. That was a big goal Saturday night and we’re glad to have him back, it was tough playing without him. We’ve banged up early this year so it’s nice to have another guy back in the lineup.”

Nonconference action

After 10 straight nonconference games the Beavers will step outside the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the first time since October to face the RedHawks.

BSU is currently second in the league standings with 11 points, but they’ve played 10 games while the rest of the league has played just eight (in some cases, six).

The Beavers are just two points ahead of second-place Bowling Green and four behind first-place Ferris State. Both teams play conference series this weekend — as do fourth place Alaska Anchorage and Northern Michigan — so the Beavers could move down in the standings through no fault of their own.

But the Beavers insist that isn’t a top priority.

“I don’t think we think about the conference stuff as much,” Illo said. “I mean, we know there aren’t any points on the line this weekend but we’re just going to try and win the games and get a rhythm going.”

The RedHawks are among four teams tied for fifth in the NCHC with six points and have lost three straight and four of six.

“They’re a premier team in the country,” Serratore said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to (the losing streak).

“They’ve lost some games so they’re probably going to change some things. But they’ve also played some pretty good teams and they’ve played them on the road, so who knows?”

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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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