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MEN’S HOCKEY: Bemidji State gets one shot at No. 1 Mavs, berth to NCAA Tournament

The Beavers have a real opportunity on their hands this Saturday – a CCHA Mason Cup Championship matchup with No. 1 Minnesota State for the right to reach the NCAA Tournament field.

031622.S.BP.BSUMHKY Alex Ierullo.JPG
Bemidji State senior Alex Ierullo (14) high-fives the bench in the third period of the CCHA semifinals on Saturday, March 12, 2022, in Houghton, Mich.
Courtesy / Michigan Tech Athletics

BEMIDJI – At one point during this year’s CCHA slate, it looked as though the Bemidji State men’s hockey team would end its season quickly, perhaps even in the first round of the conference playoffs.

But thanks to a quarterfinal series win over Bowling Green and a semifinal victory over Michigan Tech, the Beavers have a real opportunity on their hands this Saturday – a CCHA Mason Cup Championship matchup with No. 1 Minnesota State. A win would give them an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament and officially put the disappointments of this up-and-down year to sleep.

“If there’s a team you want to beat to go to the tournament, it's the No. 1 team,” senior forward Alex Ierullo said. “So it'll be fun.”

There may be no more daunting opponent in college hockey to face in a do-or-die contest, but that isn’t fazing a BSU team that is just happy to have the chance to win a championship and reach the field of 16.

“Absolutely, we’d take that,” sophomore forward Lukas Sillinger said. “It is against the No. 1 team, but we're just going to worry about ourselves. It's one game, so anything can happen. And we're just going to go out there and play our game, and hopefully the result will take care of itself.”

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031622.S.BP.BSUMHKY Lukas Sillinger.JPG
Bemidji State sophomore Lukas Sillinger hangs out around the Michigan Tech crease in the first period of the CCHA semifinals on Saturday, March 12, 2022, in Houghton, Mich.
Courtesy / Michigan Tech Athletics

Bemidji State (19-19) earned the right to face the Mavericks (34-5) by dispatching then-No. 13 Michigan Tech 5-2 last Saturday in the hostile road environment of Houghton, Mich. BSU’s top line – consisting of Lukas Sillinger, his brother Owen Sillinger and Ierullo – was instrumental, as the threesome scored all five goals and assisted on three of them.

“Our line, we found good chemistry,” Lukas Sillinger said. “We were able to generate a lot of chances around the net and capitalize on the ones that we had good looks on. So hopefully we can do a good job of that going to Minnesota State here.”

The Beavers should possess the motivation advantage over the Mavericks, as a loss would end BSU’s season. That isn’t true for MSU, which tops the Pairwise rankings and may secure the top seed in the tournament regardless of the result on Saturday.

“At the end of the day, we need to win to advance on,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “They win (or lose), they're still in the tournament. Heck, they still might be the No. 1 overall seed, I don't know. But the bottom line is we have to win. So it doesn't matter who we're playing.”

It does matter, though, that Bemidji State is hitting its stride at the right time and using its battle-hardened edge to rise to new heights.

“I look at things a little differently,” Serratore said. “This is the playoffs. We're playing good hockey. We're confident. Whether we're 3-1 in the playoffs or just 0-0 going into this game, that's how we look at it.”

And now, the Beavers are one game away from returning to the NCAA Tournament – something that seemed far-fetched just a few weeks ago when they held a 14-18 record.

“The guys have responded,” Serratore said. “The players have responded. Our back was against the wall. January and February weren't easy for the Beavers. Things got a little better near the end of February, but our guys had their backs against the wall. They showed a lot of guts over the course of the last couple of weeks.”

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BSU faces off with Minnesota State in the single-game CCHA Tournament championship at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, in Mankato.

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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