Bemidji State is playing well as it prepares to host Bowling Green in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
The Beavers won the WCHA regular-season championship and are 22-14-3 overall, including a 6-3 record in their last nine games. They defeated Northern Michigan in a best-of-3 quarterfinal series, posting a 3-1 victory in Game 3.
Bemidji is the nation’s best defensive team, allowing just 1.79 goals per game. The Beavers are third nationally in penalty-killing at 87.5 percent. Junior goalie Michael Bitzer leads the nation with a 1.65 goals-against average and is fourth with a .933 save percentage.
“I like all areas of our game right now,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore, who is in his 16th season.
The Beavers won the WCHA championship after starting league play with a 12-0-1 record, their first loss coming at runnerup Michigan Tech Dec. 3. Bemidji finished league play with a 20-6-2 record, going 8-6-1 in its last 15 games.
Eight of those first 12 wins were by two or fewer goals, including four one-goal victories. Bemidji opened the season with a 2-1, 4-1 sweep of BG at home. The Beavers were sixth in the coaches and media poll.
The Beavers all but clinched the league title with a 4-2, 3-0 home sweep of Tech Feb. 3-4. They finished 10 points ahead of Tech and 13 points of third-place Minnesota State. Tech and MSU meet in the other semifinal.
“We started off so strongly, but it wasn’t like we were playing lights out, great hockey during the first half of the season,” Serratore said. “We found a way to win games. We had a lot of things go our way. We were living right for whatever reason.
“You sure don’t apologize for it. We had a nice cushion in the league, but we know how difficult it is to win games especially two in a row, night in and night out. We’ve come down to earth the second half, but we’re still playing pretty good hockey.”
OVERLOOKED: Because the Beavers are strong defensively and in goal, their offense often is overlooked. Bemidji is seventh in the league in scoring (2.31 goals per game), but it has the second-best power-play in the league at 18.9 percent.
“We can score goals,” Serratore said. “It doesn’t look pretty in the stats, but we have the capability to score goals. Our power play is a testament to that.
“We have really good team speed, and we pressure the puck. We get shots. We have to manufacture offense like any team does. You have to get to the dirty areas and score those tough goals. You better score on the power play. You better shoot the puck from everywhere and anywhere. You better drive the net.”
Senior forward Phillip Marinaccio is the team’s leading scorer with 29 points, tied for 11th in the league. He has 12 goals and 13 assists in 25 games. Marinaccio had eight goals and 21 assists during his three seasons before his breakout senior season.
Junior forward Gerry Fitzgerald has 12 goals and 13 assists in 37 games, while junior forward Kyle Bauman has 13 goals and eight assists in 39 games, senior forward Brendan Harms has eight goals and 13 assists in 33 games, and senior forward Charlie O’Connor has six goals and 12 assists in 39 games.
Marinaccio was a second-team all-league selection, while Fitzgerald was a third-team honoree.
“They’ve got guys who can score,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “The thing about Bemidji … is they don’t rely on one person, although they’ve got capable guys at the top of their stat sheet. They’ve got depth.
“It’s lots of different people stepping up and contributing,” Bergeron added. “That’s what makes teams dangerous. It’s what we want to be, and they’ve been able to do it all year long. They’re capable of putting pressure on you and creating offense and scoring goals because of their players.”
Gerry Fitzgerald leads the team with eight power-play goals and shares the team lead in game winning goals with four.
“Gerry Fitzgerald is one of the more dangerous players in our league,” Bergeron said. “He’s not very big (5-foot-8, 174 pounds), but he’s dynamic with his skating and his quickness and his puck skills.”
GROWTH: The Beavers have won this season with a defense corps that often has included three sophomores and two freshmen on game nights.
Dan Billett, Dillon Eichstadt and Justin Baudry are the sophomores, and Tommy Muck and Zach Whitecloud are the freshmen. The only senior on defense is Carter Struthers, and Brett Beauvais is the only junior.
“Our young defense corps has really emerged this year, that’s probably the biggest plus,” Serratore said. “We never expected our defense corps to make this big a step. They’ve taken a big step. Hats off to them.”
THE VIEW FROM BEMIDJI: The Falcons are playing well, winning five straight games, including last weekend’s quarterfinal sweep of Ferris State at home.
“They’re playing really good hockey right now,” Serratore said. “They have a tremendous work ethic. They play a heavy (physical) game. They’ve got an outstanding defense corps, and they’ve got good goaltending.”
The Falcons are a veteran team that has been successful in the past. BG has advanced to the WCHA semifinals three straight seasons, but hasn’t played in the championship game. Bemidji is in the semifinals of the revamped WCHA for the first time.
“(BG has) the most experienced team in the league, and that sure helps at this time of the year,” Serratore said.
SPRING BREAK: While BG is on spring break this week, Bemidji’s students will be leaving this weekend for their break which begins Monday.