There’s unfinished business the Bemidji State men’s hockey team wants to take care of in 2020-21.

As one of the hottest teams in the country during the second half of the 2019-20 season, the Beavers appeared to be on their way to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. The coronavirus had something to say about that, forcing the cancellation of the remainder of the season in March and leaving players with a gruellingly long offseason to consider what might have been.

“We feel like we have some unfinished business from last year getting the season cut short when we were having such a great year,” said Ethan Somoza, now the team’s senior captain. “Having such a long break now, we would love to start off on the right foot and get back to where we were last season.”

On the heels of a 22-10-5 campaign that abruptly ended before the Western Collegiate Hockey Association semifinals, No. 15/16 BSU is ranked in both national preseason polls for the first time in the program’s NCAA Division I era.

The pandemic has delayed the start of the new campaign, but the waiting is almost over.

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The Beavers will play a 26-game regular season, including an 18-game conference schedule prefaced by eight non-league games against WCHA opponents.

Right out of the gate, the conference’s top two teams will clash in four straight games. BSU and defending champion Minnesota State are set to meet in the first of two series this Sunday and Monday at the Sanford Center, a series that was pushed back two days from the originally scheduled dates.

The conference slate doesn’t begin until after New Year’s, which will set up a mad dash to see if anyone can wrestle the MacNaughton Cup away from the Mavericks for the first time in four years.

“It’s not a marathon right now, it’s a sprint,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “You better do well early because you’re really going to get set back (if you don’t).”

Returning talent

Bemidji State goalie Zach Driscoll (33) eyes the puck against Lake Superior State in Game 3 of the WCHA quarterfinals on March 8 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State goalie Zach Driscoll (33) eyes the puck against Lake Superior State in Game 3 of the WCHA quarterfinals on March 8 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

There weren’t many flaws to be found with the Bemidji State team of a year ago.

Per usual, BSU was a tough team to play against thanks to a stout defense that ranked sixth nationally in goals allowed and stellar goaltending from Mike Richter Award semifinalist Zach Driscoll, who finished in the top five nationally in goals against average and save percentage.

Each special teams unit enjoyed its best season ever during the program’s NCAA Division I era, boasting a penalty kill that operated at 91.2% and came within 0.1% of being the top unit in the country, and a power play that ranked 13th at 23% to boot.

That said, what set the 2019-20 Beavers apart was their goal-scoring prowess. They averaged 3.22 goals per game, the 13th-best mark in the country and uncharacteristically high for a program associated with stifling defense.

“We got to three (goals) last year. If you can get to three, you’re going to win a lot of games,” Serratore said. “We’ve got a lot of our offensive players back. We lost some big pieces in (Adam) Brady and Tommy Muck, but also we feel we’re a year older back there. If we can get to three, we’re going to be fine.”

All but five members of last year’s squad return. Brady, Muck and Hampus Sjödahl have since graduated, while juniors Charlie Combs and Henry Johnson left as graduate transfers for Michigan State and Mercyhurst, respectively. In all, BSU returns 68% of its goals (81 to be exact) from last season.

Back in the mix are junior Owen Sillinger, the team’s co-leading scorer last year with 34 points (14g-20a) alongside Brady, and senior Aaron Miller, who was third on the team with 29 points (12g-17a). Miller had originally decided to pursue a pro career, but the pandemic prompted him to change his mind and return to the team.

The Beavers found scoring throughout the lineup, including a breakout rookie season from defenseman Elias Rosén, whose 24 points (5g-19a) were tops among freshman blueliners nationally. They hope to repeat that effort.

“Last year we set goals for ourselves on the offensive side of things,” Somoza said. “We tried to make sure we were getting a certain amount of shots a game and make sure we were really aggressive on the forecheck. And it seemed to pay off.”

Farewell, WCHA

Bemidji State's Owen Sillinger (12) takes a shot in a game against Michigan Tech on Jan. 17 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State's Owen Sillinger (12) takes a shot in a game against Michigan Tech on Jan. 17 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The 2020-21 campaign will be the last hurrah for Bemidji State in the WCHA.

After 11 seasons, the Beavers are departing the league with six other schools to form the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association. St. Thomas will ascend to Division I and join the seven programs when the conference begins play in 2021-22.

The components of the new conference now in place, Serratore is focused on the season at hand.

“I haven’t thought about next year. There’s no question, when the season ends, it’s going to be different and things are going to change for our program and quite a few programs,” said Serratore, entering his 20th season behind the bench. “It’ll be a lot easier to talk about that at that particular time, but right now, we just have to be focused on our season in the WCHA and the nine other teams in the league.”

Just as BSU isn’t looking too far into the future, it will also not dwell on the past.

The disappointment of last spring behind them, the Beavers are optimistic they’ll have another chance to prove they’re worthy of the buzz they generated a year ago.

“That was last year, and it’s a total new year,” Serratore said. “Bottom line is we’re going to have to take care of business ourselves and we’re going to have to play well just like we did last year. We’re going to be strong in all areas. Hopefully that momentum can carry over, but that, to me, is going to be up to us. Hopefully that hunger is going to be there, which I think it will be.”