Team of the Week: Bemidji State
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
Heading into last weekend’s series with Nebraska-Omaha, Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore had an easy solution to the Beavers’ Friday-night woes.
“At our Friday booster-club luncheon we declared that it was actually Saturday — not Friday,” Serratore said.
The playful psychology worked. Hours after the luncheon, Serratore led the Beavers to their first Friday-night win of the season — a 3-0 win over then-No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha — and capped the weekend with a 3-1 win Saturday to record their first sweep of the season.
Led by junior Dan Bakala’s near-perfect weekend in net (64 saves, 1 goal allowed), the Beavers took the first round of the Battle of the WCHA Newcomers, and they needed it, too. Bemidji State had won just two of its first 10 WCHA games prior to the weekend sweep of the Mavericks and is now on a three-game winning streak overall. The Beavers beat Northern Michigan 3-0 on Nov. 27 to salvage the nonconference split leading into their tilt with the Mavericks.
But the transition into the WCHA from the CHA wasn’t an easy one for the Beavers. They opened their season against North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State, respectively, and finished the October and November months with a 3-8-1 record. They were 11-2-1 in the same months last season, which was a year after the Beavers’ NCAA Frozen Four appearance.
“It’s murderers’ row every weekend now,” Serratore said. “It’s a very difficult league and a very demanding league. We can play well and lose, and that’s the case with the WCHA. There’s a fine line between winning and losing.”
Bakala allowed five goals in a loss to Alaska-Anchorage Nov. 12 and didn’t play again for 15 days. Sophomore goaltender Mathieu Dugas started the next four games: the series finale against the Seawolves, two road games against Denver and the series-opener against Northern Michigan.
But Serratore inserted Bakala back into the starting lineup for Saturday’s game against Northern Michigan, and he’s been outstanding since.
In Bakala’s last three wins — two of which were shutouts — he’s stopped 81 shots and allowed just one goal.
Last weekend he made 64 saves (26 Friday, career-best 39 Saturday) and owned a .985 save percentage against the high-powered Mavericks, who ranked second in the nation in scoring entering the series.
“He’s got the hot hand right now,” Serratore said. “We’ve been playing the goalie with the hot hand, and he’s seeing the puck very well right now.”
Bakala (4-4-0), who was named the WCHA co-Defensive Player of the Week (he shared the honor with Minnesota State goalie Phil Cook) for his weekend performance, said he credits some of his recent success to a talk he had with one of the team’s assistant coaches, Ted Belisle, during the Northern Michigan series.
“He helped simplify the situation, and it helped me out a bit,” Bakala said. “He just said, ‘Let [the puck] hit ya.’”
Serratore said he plans on playing “whichever goalie is hotter” for the remainder of the season.
Right now that’s Bakala, who, along with a stingy Beavers penalty kill, held Nebraska-Omaha’s offense to its lowest goal output of any series this season—and by five goals.
Nebraska-Omaha was 0-for-9 on the power play over the weekend, and the Beavers haven’t allowed a power-play goal for the last 33 minutes, 33 seconds.
“Our penalty kill was in the low 70s (percent) in our first six games, and it showed in our record,” Serratore said. “Since then we’ve tightened it up. If you look at the teams that are successful, take a look at their special teams, and that’s a big indicator.”
Five different Bemidji State players scored goals against the Mavericks. Jake Areshenko used his first collegiate goal at 9:02 of the first period to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead against the Mavericks Friday, and Ian Lowe and Emil Billberg added second and third period goals, respectively, to clinch the game.
Nebraska-Omaha took an early 1-0 lead Saturday, but Lowe tied the contest from the doorstep with just seven-tenths of a second left in the second period.
“From our standpoint it was a huge goal and a game-changer,” Serratore said. “It’s so mental. Your frame of mind is a little different when you score late versus being scored against.”
The Beavers rode that momentum into the third period where Aaron McLeod scored his first goal of the season, which would become the game-winner, and Jordan George added his sixth tally of the season at 15:31.
“In all aspects of the game we played well,” Serratore said. “We scored six goals, and we got secondary scoring. It was only one weekend, but we addressed some of the things we needed to as a team, and the guys responded very well.”
Lowe scored a goal in each of the wins against the Mavericks and pushed his season total to a team-leading eight. He’s scored goals in his last three games, and his five power-play goals ties him for sixth in the nation in that category.
The Beavers (5-8-1, 4-7-1 WCHA), who are tied for ninth in the WCHA standings, dismiss one high-scoring foe for the next, when they play a two-game series against No. 16 Wisconsin (8-7-3, 4-6-2) this weekend at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“If we come together as a team we can accomplish a lot,” Bakala said. “Everyone has brought it together, and hopefully we can bring it next weekend, too.”