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Bemidji State hockey: Playoff quest starts today

With a third straight College Hockey America regular-season title behind it, the Bemidji State men's hockey team now has its sights on repeating as league playoff champion.

The No. 8 Beavers (23-8-2) begin their quest for the CHA Tournament championship and NCAA automatic bid today in a semifinal matchup against fourth seed Niagara University. The game is slated for a 6 p.m. start from Dwyer Arena.

The Beavers ran away with the regular-season title in un-precedented fashion, jumping out to a 9-1-0 league start and killing the other three teams' hopes for a banner by the midway point in the season.

However, the regular-season records can now be thrown out the window, according to Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore.

"Every team is 0-0 right now and every team feels good about their chances in the tournament," he said. "We won the regular-season title, but we also know how tough it is to move on in the tournament."

Last week

The Beavers concluded the regular season with a 3-2 victory and 2-2 tie at Alabama-Huntsville last weekend.

"It was a tough series," Serratore said. "Both were good college hockey games. In fact I thought it was a great game on Friday.

"There was a lot of back-and-forth action the whole game and not many mistakes. The one major mistake early, when (UAH goalie Cameron) Talbot misplayed the puck and we got a goal was the difference."

On Saturday, Serratore said the Beavers lacked energy. "We didn't have our legs," he said. "It was a tough turnaround game on the road, playing at 3 in the afternoon. But our power play got it done for us and we earned the tie. UAH plays tough defense and this series was good preparation for the playoffs."

The top seed Beavers open the tournament against the host team Niagara (11-19-4), an unusual situation where the host ended up as the fourth seed.

BSU captured the regular-season series 5-1, winning four games at the John Glas Fieldhouse and splitting two at Dwyer Arena.

"Niagara is 4-1-0 in their last five games and feeling good about themselves," Serratore said. "They are excited about their chances in the tournament and have to be considered the tournament favorites, since they are playing at home."

The Purple Eagles won two of three games against Alabama-Huntsville and then swept Robert Morris in a regular-season-ending home-and-home series last weekend.

Niagara averaged scoring 2.9 goals per game in the regular season, while allowing an average of 3.3. The squad is led offensively by Chris Moran (8-31--39), while Ryan Olidis is the top goal scorer (13). Paul Zanette (11) and Egor Mironov (10) also ended in double digit goal scoring.

In net, the Niagara has seen Adam Avramenko (2.99, .896, 4-6-3) and Chris Noonan (3.17, .912, 6-8-1) split time the entire season.

Serratore said like all tournaments, winning and losing will come down to goaltending and special teams play.

The Beavers have been spectacular on the penalty kill against CHA opposition this year, allowing only 10 power-play goals in 90 chances - a phenomenal .889 mark. The Beavers have allowed only two power-play goals in their last seven games, going 26 for 28 (.929). BSU has a record of 5-1-1 during that stretch.

In goal, the Beavers feature one of the most highly ranked goalies in the nation. Sophomore Dan Bakala enters the weekend tied for third in the nation in wins with 19, sixth in save percentage (.925) and 10th in goals against average (2.13).

As a team, the Beavers rank fourth nationally, allowing an average of only 2.13 goals per game.

Offensively, BSU counters Niagara with junior Matt Read, recently named the CHA Player of the Year. Read enters the weekend with 19 goals and 21 assists for 40 points to lead all CHA players.

Read has scored in six consecutive games (5-3--8), a season-high streak. He is the first player in the BSU Division I era to record back-to-back 40-point seasons.

The Beavers have three additional players who ended in double figures in goal scoring: Ian Lowe (19), Jordan George (13) and Ryan Cramer (10). Two others ended with nine - Ben Kinne and Tyler Lehrke.

Offensively, the Beavers average 3.53 goals per game - ranking them sixth nationally.

"Entering the tournament, every team has something to build on," Serratore said. "We're playing for all the chips in one weekend."

Most national college hockey publications have the Beavers as a lock to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, regardless of what happens this weekend.

But that certainly doesn't mean the Beavers don't have a lot riding on the outcome of the games.

"We're hockey players and no matter what level, it's all about the playoffs," Serratore said. "Most important for us, we want to win the tournament and earn the auto-bid. If we do that we could end up with a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"That puts out team and our league in a great spot. It's foreign territory.

"There's a lot on the line for everyone in the tournament. We want to be playing our best hockey of the year right now, no question."