The last two weeks of the 2020-21 regular season are jam-packed with games for the Bemidji State men’s hockey team.
No other Western Collegiate Hockey Association team has more games remaining on its schedule than BSU. The No. 19 Beavers are set to play six games, a full 25% of their regular season schedule, over just 11 days beginning Thursday, Feb. 25.
“It’s kind of like an NHL schedule honestly with a lot of games in not a lot of days,” goaltender Zach Driscoll said. “Everything down the stretch we’re treating like a playoff game. All wins matter here at this point for sure.”
Bemidji State (9-6-3, 4-3-1 WCHA) has played only eight league games so far, the fewest of any WCHA program, because of postponements with Lake Superior State and Alabama Huntsville. Meanwhile, teams like Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Ferris State have only two games left before the WCHA playoffs get underway March 12.
“At the end of the day, we need to worry about us,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “We’re going to have minimal practice. The biggest thing is you want to make sure that guys have as much gas in the tank as possible. … It’s that time of year where it’s not about what you’re doing in practice. It’s what you’re doing in the games.”
“We don’t want to practice,” forward Brendan Harris laughed. “We want to play.”
The home stretch of the regular season begins Thursday at No. 3 Minnesota State.
Fortunately for the Beavers, their final five games -- Feb. 27 vs. Minnesota State, March 2-3 vs. No. 18 Lake Superior State and March 6-7 vs. Alabama Huntsville -- are all at home. They’ve even been given an additional day off with Tuesday’s announcement that the UAH series has been pushed back from its original March 5-6 dates.
BSU will begin the stretch run with the team it’ll face the most this season: Minnesota State (15-2-1, 10-0-0 WCHA). Meetings No. 5 and 6 are on the way, with the Mavericks owning a 2-1-1 lead in the season series. Unlike the first four meetings, WCHA points will be on the line.
“We played them in November, December and January,” Serratore said. “It seems like we play them every week, but we played them every month in a shortened season, as well.”
Driscoll and Dryden McKay, two of the league’s top goalies, will meet again. McKay recently surpassed former Beaver Michael Bitzer as the WCHA’s all-time shutouts leader with 22, a milestone that also moved the junior into second in NCAA history behind only Ryan Miller’s 26 career shutouts.
McKay’s .946 save percentage and 1.03 goals against average are the best by any NCAA netminder with at least 10 appearances this season. He experienced a rare off night last Friday when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 10 shots in an eventual 5-4 overtime win over Ferris State. McKay’s goals against average rose from 0.79 to 1.03.
“Zach is going to be challenged, there’s no question,” Serratore said. “And hopefully we can challenge McKay, as well.”
First road sweep at Tech
The Beavers rebounded from getting swept by Northern Michigan by doing the same to Michigan Tech last weekend, winning 4-1 and 2-1 in Houghton, Mich. The victories marked the first time Bemidji State had ever swept Tech on the road, and allowed BSU to reenter the USCHO.com top 20 poll at No. 19.
Driscoll earned WCHA Goaltender of the Week by stopping 80 of 82 shots for the weekend, including a 47-save performance Friday that was one stop shy of a career high.
On the injury front, Will Zmolek returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 13 and notched an assist in Friday’s win.
Owen Sillinger has now missed the last three games due to injury and a timetable for his return is not yet known, Serratore said. Serratore also confirmed Nick Cardelli, who has been injured since January, is out for the rest of the year.
At a glance
Who: BSU vs. Minnesota State
Where: Mankato (Thu.); Bemidji (Sat.)
When: 7:07 p.m. Thursday; 6:07 p.m. Saturday
Radio: Beaver Radio Network/92.1 FM
Web stream: FloHockey.tv