FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The Bemidji State men's hockey team begins its quest for a 2010 NCAA Midwest Region title Saturday when it faces the University of Michigan in a 6:30 p.m. start from the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
The two teams took opposite routes to the regional. The No. 9 Beavers (23-9-4) received their first ever at-large bid to the national tournament on the strength of a strong regular season that saw the Beavers equal the school record for wins. BSU, the regional's second seed, will be the home team versus storied No. 11 Michigan, the third seed.
The Wolverines captured an automatic bid to the tournament by winning the CCHA playoffs, sweeping six straight games. The Michigan regular season was untypical, as the Wolverines finished 19-17-1 overall and 14-13-1 in the CCHA to finish seventh. But Michigan got on a roll late, including a 5-2 thrashing of Miami, the top ranked team in the nation.
This is the 20th consecutive time Michigan has advanced to the national tournament, the longest streak in the country.
Both BSU and Michigan participated in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the Beavers winning the Midwest Regional with a 5-1 victory over Notre Dame and a 4-1 win over Cornell. The Beavers then fell to Miami 4-1 in the opening round of the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C. The Wolverines were defeated 2-0 by Air Force in their tournament opener last year.
"This team's had to battle," said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "Last year if you'd have asked me at Christmas time if we were going to make the NCAA tournament I would have said yes. This year, I couldn't do that. This team's had to battle to get here. Everyone appreciates being in this tournament; now we have to take advantage of it."
The Wolverines struggled to maintain a .500 record for most of the regular season. On Feb. 25, Michigan starting goalie Bryan Hogan was injured and replaced by junior Shawn Hunwick. Since that time the Wolverines have gone 7-1-0, including 6-0 in the CCHA playoff to advance.
"Hunwick's been a part (of the team success)," Berenson reported. "He's a kid who was never in the plans to start a game this year. He's answered all the questions by the way he's played. If I'm a player I'd be excited to play in front of him."
At the same, the entire Wolverine team has stepped up its play. "The forwards have done a better job of supporting the defense and the defense has done better supporting the goalie. It's been a well-rounded effort. Our team is in a good position right now ... I like our team and like our place, but we know we have to play well to advance."
The Wolverines are paced by junior Carl Hagelin who leads the team in scoring at 17-30--47. Junior forward Louie Caporusso has recorded seven goals and four assists in the last six games. He scored both of Michigan's goals in the teams 2-1 win over Northern Michigan to claim the CCHA playoff title.
Hunwick is 7-2-0 with a 1.86 goals against average and .912 save percentage. He was voted the MVP of the CCHA playoffs.
Berenson said that after watching Bemidji State on tape the Beavers are one of the quickest teams he's seen this year. "They are a legitimate contending team," he said. "(In the 2009 Midwest Regional) they beat Notre Dame, the top team in our conference last year, and made it look easy. That concerns me."
The Beavers aren't going to surprise anyone this year if they post some wins the tournament. "If they beat us, it won't be a surprise," he said. "No one is going to surprise anyone this year. We know how good we'll have to play to move on."
After a disappointing loss and a tie at the CHA tournament, the Beavers have used a week off to recuperate and prepare for the NCAA tournament. BSU head coach Tom Serratore said the Beavers were emotionally and physically drained after the CHA playoffs, showing the effects of playing 13 of 18 games on the road in the second half of the season.
"We needed the week off," Serratore reported. "They guys got away from the rink for a few days and then we had some great practices leading up to the tournament. You could see the guys were ready to get back to work and prepare for the regional."
The Beavers had record setting regular season, spending a school-record 22 consecutive weeks ranked among the nation's top 15 teams. The Beavers enter the national tournament rated eighth in the Pairwise rankings, easily gaining an at-large bid to the tournament.
Bemidji State utilized a well rounded game of tough defense and a strong scoring punch to advance to the national tournament as an at-large bid. BSU sits fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 2.28 goals per game. Offensively the Beavers are sixth nationally, scoring an average of 3.53 goals per game.
Junior forward Matt Read leads the team in scoring with 19-21--40. Junior Ian Lowe is the team leader in goal with 20.
Defensively, sophomore Brad Hunt enters the national tournament riding a four game scoring streak. His 7-26--33 is ranked fifth in the nation among defensemen. BSU goalie sophomore Dan Bakala enters the tournament tied for fifth in the nation with 19 wins, 11th in save percentage at .919 and 11th in goals against average at. 2.27.
Serratore said he knows Michigan will pose a very formidable challenge. "Michigan has a very dangerous team," he said. "They have extremely skilled forwards who are fast and very talented. Defensively, they have five guys who scored in double figures. I watched them play four times this year, including when they beat Minnesota 6-1. They are gelling at the right time.
"There's no doubt, we need to play very smart against them. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
Hunt said the Beavers are anxious for the game to begin. "This is where we've wanted to be all year," he said. "We're ready to go."
The tournament begins at 4 p.m. Saturday as top seed Miami takes on the University of Alabama-Huntsville, winner of the College Hockey America auto-bid and the tournament's 16th seed.