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COLUMN: Playoff performance bodes well for Bemidji State's future

The Final Five started Thursday night without Bemidji State.

I’m stating the obvious: This is the last Final Five in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association as we know it, and Minnesota swept BSU in their first-round playoff series last weekend.

Minnesota is slated to play in the WCHA Final Five semifinals tonight at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and of course the talk will revolve around the last meaningful conference matchup between two schools that won’t be in the league after this season.

What you might not hear when the pundits dissect the game, however, is how close Bemidji State came to knocking off the Gophers last weekend at Mariucci Arena, nearly crashing the party with two hard-fought games against the Golden Gophers.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia had nothing but great things to say about the Beavers’ play against his Gopher squad.

“There’s been so much pride in that program for many years,” Lucia said following Saturday’s game. “We knew it would be a difficult draw coming in. They don’t beat themselves.

“Their commitment level from start to finish this week made us really work for everything.”

The Beavers, behind the magnificent goaltending of sophomore Andrew Walsh and a stout defense that blocked 27 shots, forced the Gophers to overtime Friday before losing 2-1 in the extra frame.

On Saturday, BSU’s offense caught fire and it had a pair of two-goal leads before the Gophers came back to win 4-3.

Lucia called Bemidji’s brand of defensive hockey perfect for the postseason.

“They really play a playoff style,” he said. “Our guys had to find a way to win.”

In both games, the Beavers had their chances to win but couldn’t quite find the final push at the end.

“It’s too bad we don’t have any wins to show for it,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said following the series. “We played two very good hockey games.

“I’m proud of our guys. I thought they responded well and played their hearts out.”

In Friday night’s overtime thriller, Walsh made a career-high 49 saves on 51 Gopher shots on goal. The BSU defensive corps blocked 27 more shots in front of him. Matt Prapavessis alone had nine blocks.

On Saturday, the Gophers had 41 shots. The Beaver defense blocked “only” 15 this time around.

Either way, the fact that the Beavers were in either game at all was a true team effort.

“Walshie gave us a chance to win, but I’ll tell you what, we had 20 guys who played well,” Serratore said.

No doubt it was disappointing for the Beavers and their fans not to get a single positive result after playing so well against the Gophers.

Serratore called it a “tough pill to swallow” in the immediate aftermath of the series.

But BSU’s play in the final month of the season bodes well for next year in the reconfigured WCHA.

After losing four straight against Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State, the Beavers went 1-6-3. The win – against Minnesota-Duluth – was their only one of 2013, but the Beavers still played very well. Of those six losses, three were by a single goal.

Sure, the Beavers lose nine seniors – one of the largest classes in recent history of the program and one that accomplished much in their four years in the green and white. They’ll be losing some important leadership positions on the top lines (Ben Kinne, Jordan George, Aaron McLeod, Brance Orban and David Boehm) as well as their top defensive pairing (Jake Areshenko and Brady Wacker).

But take a look at the score sheets from the last six games of the season and you’ll find that BSU has set itself up nicely for a resurgent 2013-14 following this year’s disappointing 6-22-8 slate.

One big problem the Beavers had this season was finding consistent scoring from each of their four lines, but down the stretch it was the third and fourth lines that turned it on and gave BSU a spark.

The all-underclassmen third line, which featured junior Radoslav Illo, freshman Cory Ward and sophomore Danny Mattson, racked up 13 points and seven goals in the last eight games.

The fourth line, which usually consisted of sophomore Mitch Cain and freshmen Markus Gerbrandt and Phil Brewer, didn’t score a ton but made its goals count. Brewer had three goals on the year, including key scores in ties with North Dakota and Wisconsin; while Gerbrandt and Cain combined for only six points but brought a perfect physical presence needed from the fourth line.

Defensively, the Beavers bring back a solid core in alternate captain Prapavessis as well as fellow sophomores Sam Windle and Sam Rendle, not to mention Walsh coming back after appearing at times to be the second coming of Martin Brodeaur in net against the Gophers.

In other words, the Beavers have set themselves up nicely for 2013-14, with almost exactly half of its scoring production returning.

In the new-look WCHA – which promises to be much more competitive with the inclusion of the five smaller Central Collegiate Hockey Association schools and independent Alabama-Huntsville – BSU should be right up there in the league standings.

It may be painful for Beaver fans to watch teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin duke it out knowing their Beavers had a realistic shot of upsetting the Gophers in Minneapolis, but cheer up. The Beavers have plenty to look forward to.

Next season will be here before you know it.

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 and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.

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