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Bemidji State men's hockey: No. 14 Beavers host No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth Friday in clash of national powers

Dan MacIntyre and the No. 14 Bemidji State men's hockey team hosts No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth Friday at 7:37 p.m. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

The Bemidji State men's hockey team wants to be considered one of the top college teams in the nation.

A great opportunity to take another step in that direction is at hand.

Bemidji State and the surging University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs begin a major home-and-home series tonight, facing off at the John Glas Fieldhouse in a 7:35 p.m. start. The teams conclude the series Saturday at the DECC in Duluth.

The No. 4 Bulldogs (16-7-1, 12-5-1 WCHA) enter the series as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning four straight and going 6-1-0 in their last seven games. UMD currently sits atop the WCHA standings at 12-5-1.

In latest action the Bulldogs hit the road and swept Minnesota State Mankato. UMD ended the regular season 4-0-0 against the Mavericks, a team which swept BSU at The Glas in mid-December.

"A big part of a team's won-loss record each year is when you happen to play teams," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "We happen to be playing UMD at a time when they're the hottest team in the country, if not the best team in the country, at this point.

"It's going to be very challenging and very exciting at the same time."

The Beavers (15-5-2, 8-1-0 CHA) fell from the ranks of the unbeaten in College Hockey America play, losing 6-4 in the opener at Niagara before posting a 4-3 win in the series finale. No one associated with BSU hockey was pleased with the weekend.

"It was a sloppy weekend for us. We got a split on the road, but we didn't take care of the puck," Serratore reported. "Eight of Niagara's goals came directly from our turnovers - all six on Friday and two on Saturday. We need to remedy that quickly."

With the undefeated record at the time, and a dominating first period Friday that saw the Beavers take a 2-0 lead, BSU seemed to take the foot off the gas pedal the rest of the game. It wasn't the thing to do.

"When you have some success like we have had so far, sometimes you can get a little complacent and not pay attention to detail," Serratore said. "That's what happened to us on Friday and we paid the price for it.

"We played better and with some desperation on Saturday. Still, we took a step back last weekend - giving up nine goals. We have to get better defensively."

The UMD series is a big one for both teams for a number of reasons. With two neighboring teams ranked among the top 15 in the nation set to square off it will be one of the most watched college hockey series anywhere.

"We've developed a good northern Minnesota rivalry over the years," Serratore said. "The games have been real battles. This is the last time we'll be playing it as a nonconference series; we're moving to the WCHA and I'm sure they want to send us a message."

Then there's the Pairwise implications. Pairwise is a ranking system used to mimic the selection process for teams chosen to advance to the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid.

The Bulldogs' recent surge rocketed them up the Pairwise rankings to third, while BSU's loss to Niagara dropped them from fourth to a tie for seventh.

If Bemidji State wants to remain among the nation's elite come selection time, these types of games against top ranked opponents are especially important.

Of course, UMD feels the same way.

Much like the Beavers, UMD has parlayed their success from last year into a strong start this season. Last year, UMD earned a trip to the NCAA tournament by winning the WCHA Final Five. UMD then won its regional quarterfinal game before falling to Miami, coming a game short of reaching the Frozen Four.

Included in the Bulldogs' recent seven-game surge are impressive single game wins over Denver and Mercyhurst, along with sweeps of Colorado College and Mankato.

The high-powered UMD offense, which scores an average of 3.54 goals per game, features three 30-point scorers and another on the verge.

Sophomore center Jack Connolly leads the team with 35 points on 15 goals and 20 assists. Junior forward Justin Fontaine is next (16-18--34) with junior forward Rob Bordson third (6-24--30). Sophomore forward Mike Connolly is also right in the mix with 26 points (9-17).

The UMD defense has allowed an average of 2.58 goals per game. A pair of sophomores, Brady Hjelle and Kenny Reiter, have pretty much split duty in goal for UMD. Reiter has seen more of the action of late, featuring a record of 8-3-0 with a 2.11 goals against average and .916 save percentage. Hjelle stands 8-4-1 with a .902 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average.

"They have a very high-octane team," Serratore said, "with two lines that can score at a consistently high level. Typically, in college hockey, a team is fortunate to have one line that can score like that.

"UMD is in a different bracket. They are fast, talented and skilled up front, plus they are good on the blue line. They have good kids who are very determined and have high expectations - they should.

"We need to take care of the puck against a team like UMD or we're going to have a couple long nights," Serratore continued. "The guys realize that and hopefully it won't happen this weekend like it did against Niagara."

Another key will be the play of the BSU special teams. With UMD humming along at 24.7 percent on the power play, the Beavers have placed a heavy emphasis on the penalty kill during practice this week.

"They have some very talented kids - Fontaine has 12 power play goals (tops in the nation)," Serratore said. "We paid special attention to that area, but it's hard to contrain they talent they have.

"We're going to have to be grittier this weekend - hopefully the Niagara series was a wake up call."

A final key, as usual, is goaltending. "We need to get good goaltending this weekend," Serratore said. "They are going to generate their share of chances. We need to make sure our goalie is our best player."

Despite the lackluster series against Niagara, the Beavers continue to stand among the nation's best in several statistical categories.

The Bemidji State defense remained second in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 2.05 goals per game. BSU is fifth in scoring offense, averaging 3.55 goals. The Beavers are also second in team winning percentage (15-5-2, .727).

Individually, Matt Read is 14th in points per game at 13-16--29 (1.32). Brad Hunt is fourth in points per game among defensemen (6-16--22, 1.00), while Jordan George is fourth among rookies ( (8-14--22, 1.05).

Sophomore goalie Dan Bakala is fifth in goals against average (2.00), save percentage (.927) and winning percentage (12-3-2, .765)