BEMIDJI, Minn. — There were quite a few questions that needed to be answered for the Bemidji State men’s hockey team prior to the 2018-19 season. Who would replace Michael Bitzer in goal? Who would step up in the goal-scoring department? How could Zach Whitecloud be replaced on the blue line?

The Beavers went a long way toward answering those questions last season, which has raised expectations for the team ahead of the 2019-20 campaign with coaches picking them to finish third in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. That once-young group of forwards has matured with a year of experience under their belts, as have the goaltenders, who will partner with a young defensive corps this season.

“It’s a little bit of a different team,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “But there’s a couple areas where we feel we have a lot of experience. We have experience up front, experience in goal and we have a young blue line. It’s a very young blue line, but it’s a blue line with a lot of talent we think.”

Up front, the Beavers return 78 percent of their goals from a season ago. That includes leading goal scorers Charlie Combs and Aaron Miller, who tallied 11 goals apiece as sophomores. Owen Sillinger netted 10 goals in a standout freshman season.

Aaron Miller. Courtesy of Bemidji State University Photo Services

Combs and his 22 points are the most by a returner, followed closely by senior Adam Brady’s 21 points (8g-13a). Brendan Harris leads all returners with 14 assists.

“We have a veteran group up front,” said Brady, who will captain the team with senior defenseman Tommy Muck. “We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of games here and they have a lot of college experience. Offensively, I think we should be able to generate more than last year, and hopefully we can improve on goal scoring.”

Charlie Combs. Courtesy of Bemidji State University Photo Services

Serratore is ready for the forwards to take the next step.

“They’re a year older. There’s nothing new to them now,” Serratore said. “And I think from their standpoint, they know what to expect. And I think it’s a confident group that way.”

For all the team’s 5-on-5 success, the power play sputtered for stretches and converted on 14 percent (53rd out of 60 NCAA Division I teams) of chances for the season.

“Last year, it was our best year of 5-on-5 scoring in a long time,” Serratore said. “We just struggled on the power play. And in years past, our power play was pretty good. We feel we have the ability to score some goals, and we just hope that we can chip in both ways.”

Bemidji State goalie Zach Driscoll makes a save during an Oct. 6, 2018, exhibition game against Lakehead at the Sanford Center. Courtesy of Bemidji State University Photo Services

Blue-line youth, goalie depth

While BSU will be looking for more consistency on the power play, it will hope for more of the same from a penalty-kill unit that ranked among the best in the nation last season.

Some of those penalty-kill contributors have graduated, including defenseman Justin Baudry, whose 31 points led the team. Four freshmen, including Bemidji native Nick Leitner, will join five returners on defense.

“The defensive corps is where we were last year with the forward group,” Serratore said. “It’s kind of a tale of two different seasons right there with where our experience lies.”

The four rookie blue-liners all come from Tier I juniors via the United States Hockey League, which should help with the jump to college.

Tommy Muck. Courtesy of Bemidji State University Photo Services

“They’ve been looking good,” said Muck, the lone senior blue-liner. “It’s not an easy step to go from junior to college. That intermediate stage in junior definitely helps you to develop and to mature. But it’s a different pace once you get up here.”

In goal, Zach Driscoll (10-11-4/2.32 GAA/.909 SV%) and Hank Johnson (5-5-2/1.96/.916) are juniors. The two split starts the first half of last season before Driscoll settled into the starting job full time in the second half. Freshman Michael Carr will join them on the roster.

Serratore was not yet prepared to name a starter in net as of last week.

“A new year brings different challenges, different expectations,” Serratore said. “If you want to win games, you have to be good at that position and you have to be consistent at that position.”

Bemidji State defenseman Tommy Muck (3) keeps the puck from Alaska Anchorage’s Trey deGraaf in last season at the Sanford Center. Jillian Gandsey/The Rink Live

Home ice or bust

Home-ice advantage in the first-round of the WCHA Playoffs — by finishing fourth or higher — remains the goal for Bemidji State. Five points kept the Beavers from achieving that goal last winter as Lake Superior State earned the No. 4 seed and swept No. 5 BSU in the first round.

With Minnesota State and Bowling Green as the clear favorites to finish 1-2 in the league, the Beavers figure to be in the thick of the hunt for home ice with LSSU, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech.

“There’s going to be a battle this year for home ice,” Serratore said. “I think this probably the most parity we’ve had in a while in our league. I think there are two teams right now on paper who are a cut above everybody and that’s Bowling Green and Minnesota State Mankato. Their play last year dictated that. They’ve got the majority of their team back.

“We’re all chasing those teams right now. But we also realize that there’s a couple home-ice slots that are available and we’re all battling for them.”

The road to the playoffs begins with a marquee pair of opponents to start off the year for Bemidji State. St. Cloud State will come to the Sanford Center for opening weekend Oct. 11-12. Following a week off, BSU will travel down Highway 2 for a two-game series at North Dakota, Oct. 25-26.

“St. Cloud was the best team in the country last year, pretty much throughout the whole year,” Serratore said. “It’s going to be fun to have them in our barn.”

Such early-season tests will be a good indicator of where this Beaver team is headed in 2019-20.

“I think we’re going to find out right away where we’re at,” Serratore said. “It’s going to be challenging. … We love those games, our fans like those games. They’re challenging games. I do think it sets the tone for you.”

Austin Monteith (@amonteith92) can be reached at amonteith@bemidjipioneer.com or (218) 333-9787.