BEMIDJI -- The No. 20 Bemidji State men’s hockey team has already faced No. 7 North Dakota once this season. But this time is different.
After meeting the Fighting Hawks for an exhibition two weeks ago, the Beavers welcome their westward rivals for the first game of a home-and-home series Friday at the Sanford Center.
"That's why we play this game, and that's why we're (good rivals),” head coach Tom Serratore said. “It's an hour and 45 minutes apart. A lot of Grand Forks people, a lot of North Dakota people live here, whether it's full time or in the summer. To me, it just puts another layer to the rivalry in the games.”
The contest will mark UND goaltender Zach Driscoll’s return to Bemidji after transferring to North Dakota in the offseason for his fifth season of eligibility. Serratore said he’s happy that BSU has already faced Driscoll once, which should limit any nerves when they see him Friday.
"It was interesting, and I'm glad we got that out of the way, to be honest with you,” Serratore said. “I'm sure (UND head coach Brad Berry) feels the same way from their end. But it'll look weird right away.”
It will look weird to both Serratore and Bemidji State’s skaters, who faced off with Driscoll daily in practice for multiple years. Will the advantage lie more with the forwards and defensemen who know how to score on Driscoll, or the veteran netminder who has unsurpassed familiarity with how his old teammates like to put the puck in the net?
“Honestly, I think it goes both ways,” center Ross Armour said. “Obviously, he knows what our releases look like and all that type of stuff, but we know where to shoot on him, (that) kind of thing. But we don't really think about that, we're just focused on doing our best and trying to get the puck behind him.”
The Beavers are still searching for their first win of the season after dropping two straight to Minnesota Duluth in a season-opening home-and-home series. Serratore opened up this week on the urgency of trying to find a win in each series, especially when dropping the first game at home.
“If you don't win Friday, there's pressure on Saturday,” Serratore said. “And that's what there was. I mean, you're going into Saturday, and that's how we look at it as coaches and players. It's like a must-win. And so no, there's a lot of pressure. That's why, again, I'll take a Friday win any day of the week, and then let Saturday play out.”
Learning from the past
After dropping the home opener 4-2 to UMD, a game that featured a late empty-net goal to create an artificially large deficit, BSU responded with a tight 2-1 loss in Duluth. The Beavers believe they are playing good hockey, but they hope it translates to a win soon.
"Obviously Duluth, they bring a lot to the table,” Armour said. “They're a very good team, but we know how we can play, and we had some opportunities to get up (on them), and sometimes we didn't capitalize on those. But we learned from our mistakes, and we're going to bring that into this weekend against North Dakota.”
One thing Bemidji State has already taken from Minnesota Duluth? The way the Bulldogs hunkered down in the last few minutes of the second matchup, preventing the Beavers from ever pulling goalie Gavin Enright late in the third period. BSU studied UMD’s play down the stretch and hopes to emulate its late-game intensity in other matchups moving forward.
“How they clamped down and how they played the last two minutes of the game was outstanding,” Serratore said. “A team like Duluth, I don't know a better team that knows how to play with a 2-1 lead. … Duluth's won national championships and (with) how successful they've been, but they know how to play not only with a one-goal lead, but they know how to win 2-1. And if you want to go far, you got to know how to win 2-1.”
Winning tight games, especially low-scoring ones, could be the difference between the Beavers returning to the Elite Eight and beyond or completing a season with high expectations having fallen short of their goals.
Though it was just an exhibition, BSU dropped its last meeting with North Dakota by a 2-1 margin. Flipping that score would show Bemidji State can beat, not just compete with, the best teams in the country.
The Beavers will find out the result of their preparation on Friday, Oct. 15, at 7:07 p.m. at the Sanford Center and again at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D.