I admit, prior to last weekend, I still had my doubts -- I’d like to call it a healthy dose of skepticism -- about the Bemidji State men’s hockey team and its ability to stay near the top of the WCHA standings.
Sure, the Beavers have been in second place for most of the last two months now. But they hadn’t exactly played the cream of the crop in the WCHA.
Could they really contend with Minnesota State for first place and a chance at hoisting the MacNaughton Cup?
After seeing BSU clinch five out of a possible six points from then-No. 19 Michigan Tech, count me in as a believer.
I probably should’ve started believing sooner.
Though Bemidji State went 0-4-2 in nonconference play, those losses to North Dakota -- No. 1 in the Pairwise -- keep looking better and better. And a pair of ties against St. Cloud State is nothing to hang your head about, nor were close Mariucci Classic losses to Minnesota and Minnesota State.
Maybe the margin of victory in the Beavers’ league wins up to this point should’ve clued me in as to how superior they've been. BSU is outscoring WCHA opponents 67-29, the second-best scoring margin in the conference.
The offense as a whole, not usually a trademark of most Beaver teams, has been producing throughout the lineup. Eighteen different players have a goal to their name and 11 have double-digit points.
The defense has been as stingy as ever, and so has netminder Zach Driscoll, who is third in the nation in goals against average (1.68) and 11th in save percentage (.931).
The special teams units have been at the top of their game. The penalty kill has routinely ranked among the best in the country (third, to be exact, at 91.14 percent) and the power play isn’t far behind (13th at 21.69 percent).
Every component of the team’s success played a part in last weekend’s near-sweep of MTU.
A 4-1 win Friday came within 64 seconds of being a shutout, and Adam Brady secured two points in the standings with his 3-on-3 overtime winner Saturday.
Though the series finale was officially a 1-1 tie, it was one of those muck-it-up defensive battles that I’d always bet on the Beavers to win, something they came close to doing multiple times in regulation.
That being said, it’s not going to get any easier.
Bemidji State has made the Sanford Center a place no opponent wants to play with a 8-1-3 record at home. But BSU remains 5-5-1 on the road, and six of its final 10 games require a bus or plane ride.
The team’s toughest challenge yet lies at the other end of a five-hour drive to Mankato for an in-state clash this weekend that could determine the WCHA regular-season champion.
The Beavers, unbeaten in their last six, have a chance to pull into a tie for first place with a six-point weekend against league-leading Minnesota State. Aside from a lackluster first period against the Mavericks last month in Minneapolis, Bemidji State matched them pound-for-pound the final 40 minutes of a 2-0 loss.
Even if BSU -- a team picked during the preseason to finish third by WCHA coaches and fifth by the media -- can’t muster enough points to surpass MSU, a second-place finish is there for the taking.
That’s not something I was sold on as recently as one week ago. But you better believe it.