BEMIDJI -- Bemidji State and Minnesota State squared off five times last season, with the in-state rivalry reaching a boiling point during a regular season-ending series that decided the Western Collegiate Hockey Association champion.
How about four more meetings between these ranked teams in a span of seven days to kick off the 2020-21 season?
That’s in the cards for the No. 16 Beaver men’s hockey team this Sunday, Nov. 22, and Monday, Nov. 23, when it welcomes the No. 5 Mavericks to town.
The pandemic-shortened campaign opens at the Sanford Center with a 5:07 p.m. puck drop Sunday before a rare Monday afternoon tilt that starts at 3:07 p.m. After three days off, the teams will be right back at it with a Friday/Saturday series Nov. 27-28 in Mankato.
Neither series will count for league points -- both teams are slated to start the year with eight nonconference contests against WCHA opponents -- but don’t expect these games to mean any less.
“Conference points matter, but a game is a game, and especially against an in-state rival like Mankato, who’s a top team, the points don’t really matter. We want to win,” BSU goaltender Zach Driscoll said. “Guys haven’t played hockey in seven or eight months, whatever it is. Everybody’s going to be ready to go for that Sunday puck drop.”
“To have to play Bemidji State four times, it’s a difficult task,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said during WCHA media day last week. “We play them four times every year, let alone play them in back-to-back weekends. But I think the guys are just excited about getting out and playing.”
More than eight months have passed since either team last saw the ice for a game. The sight of a zebra-striped official will be a welcome return to normalcy.
“(Players) just want a referee right now,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “They want the clock to be on. They want off-ice officials. They just want to get into a game. For these guys, they’ve never went this long without playing a game.”
After a long offseason, the Beavers have been mostly focusing on themselves during the preseason rather than their upcoming opponents.
“The thing I like about these early games like this -- we’re not overcoaching,” Serratore said. “We’re going to show them some video, but we’re not going to overdo it, that’s for sure. We’re worried about us, and I think that’s what you need to be at this time.”
The Mavericks held a 3-2 edge in the five meetings against Bemidji State last season, including the third-place game at the Mariucci Classic, though BSU was responsible for two of MSU’s five total losses.
Few teams in the nation matched the hot streak that the WCHA’s Minnesota contingent embarked on in the second half. Over the final two months of the regular season, the only two losses each team suffered were to each other. A Beaver victory on the penultimate night of the season gave them a chance to hoist the MacNaughton Cup as league champions the following night, only for No. 2 Minnesota State to secure a win in the season finale.
Expect to see those same squads compete with similar intensity this week as they hope to recapture their late-season magic of last winter.
“Can we be an extension of last year’s team? That’s what we’re hoping,” Serratore said. “You’d like to have things carry over from last year, but only time will tell. We just feel we’ve got some experience on our team, where I felt we were younger last year.”
Driscoll and MSU netminder Dryden McKay were not only the WCHA’s top two goaltenders statistically a year ago, but arguably two of the best at their position in the country.
Both were among those in contention for the Mike Richter Award as men’s college hockey’s top goalie last season, and both finished among the top five nationally in goals against average and save percentage.
Driscoll sees the similarities between the two of them.
“You can just kind of tell from looking at us, we’re both a little bit on the smaller side for goalies, kind of athletic,” said Driscoll, who is 6 feet tall, while McKay is 5-foot-11. “He’s a heck of a goalie. It’s fun to watch him play and lining up across from him, you know it’s going to be a battle every time we play.”
How to follow the games
Fans will not be allowed at BSU hockey games until further notice due to COVID-19 precautions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to follow the action.
FloHockey.tv is the live-streaming home of WCHA hockey. Viewing plans begin at $29.99 and can be purchased for $12.50 per month with a year-long subscription.
RP Broadcasting’s Beaver Radio Network will air every game this season. Tune into The River 92.1 FM in the Bemidji area, 107.9 FM in the Grand Rapids area or online at BeaverRadioNetwork.com.
Follow @amonteith92 for live Pioneer coverage on Twitter.