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This Week in the WCHA

College Hockey:
WCHA grind one of the biggest challenges for Bemidji State

I started writing this week’s column with the following:

Last week we talked about two teams that have been exceeding preseason expectations. This week, let’s sit down and discuss a team that hasn’t been doing quite as well as we all thought it would be, but perhaps we should have known better — the Bemidji State Beavers.

Then I looked at what we all thought they’d do: I thought they’d finish seventh; my colleague Tyler Buckentine and the media eighth, and the coaches ninth.

Where do the Beavers sit in the standings right now, near the midway point of the season? Tied for ninth with Alaska-Anchorage … close to where we all thought they would be.

I then asked myself, why do we all feel like they’ve been underachieving? Is it because of the success we’ve seen the team have the past few years, their last in the now-defunct CHA? Or is it just because we feel like they can do so much more?

Coach Tom Serratore said, coming in, that it would be a tough transition. He thought that Nebraska-Omaha might have an easier go of it, given that it came from a conference similar in size and, for lack of a better word, power (and indeed the Mavericks have had an easier time adjusting … so far).

However, he expected that it would be a rough go at first.

“I thought there would be a transition. I realized how good the WCHA is and you can play well in the WCHA and lose,” he said. “Even though we played a lot of WCHA teams in the past, we haven’t had to play them back to back to back like we had to opening the season with teams like North Dakota, Duluth and St. Cloud, so a very difficult schedule [and] very difficult teams immediately.

“You know what to expect, but it’s the same thing week after week; it’s just a different jersey, different helmet, different color pants.”

As Serratore aptly points out, the team was thrown straight into the meat grinder that we all love and follow. Out of the six WCHA series the Beavers have played so far, four have been against the current top four teams in the league in the aforementioned Sioux and Bulldogs as well as Denver and Nebraska-Omaha. The other two? The aforementioned Huskies (disappointing, but still no cakewalk) and Alaska-Anchorage, which will always make its opponent work for any points it may get.

“The biggest thing is just the grind week in and week out,” Serratore said. “It’s so physically demanding, but it’s mentally demanding as well. Psychologically, it’s a very tough league for sure.”

Still, the team may have found a way to start coping with the grind. The Beavers are 5-8-1 (4-7-1 in league) and on a three-game win streak, starting with a split against the CCHA’s Northern Michigan and a surprising sweep of fellow league newbie UNO.

What exactly they’ve done different, however, is anyone’s guess.

“It’s difficult to answer; our guys, they know how they have to play to compete in this league, that’s for sure,” Serratore said. “But I think ultimately, when you see the success that we’ve had the last couple weeks, a lot of it’s just predicated on playing good defense and actually having good special teams, and that’s the magic formula right there. If you out-special team your opponent, there’s a good chance you’re going to win, and we’ve had that luxury.

“So many factors play into it, but ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about and we’ve been very good in those areas.”

For the most part, Serratore believes his team has played well this year. In his weekly press conference, he mused a bit more about why his team had so much success against UNO.

“You take a look all year, we’ve played a lot of good games and still lost. Maybe some things just went our way. Some things probably just went our way this past weekend. We were tough to play against,” he said. “I thought we were relentless for 60 minutes. Maybe in some other games we just took a few shifts off. You take a shift off here, you take a shift off there, the opposing team can take advantage of it. I don’t know. It’s hard to put a finger on it.”

Not exactly knowing why his team has been doing better probably isn’t good going into the future, but if it does boil down simply to the Serratore school of “special teams and goaltending” as the keys to hockey (Tom’s brother Frank preaches the same at Air Force), the road should be a bit smoother.

Also, when I say road, I mean road. The Beavers have had just two series away from home this year and they’re 1-3 in those four games. This weekend’s series against Wisconsin marks the beginning of what is essentially a month-long road trip, as the Beavers won’t play at home again until the weekend of Jan. 21-22 against St. Cloud State. BSU has only three home series remaining — SCSU, Colorado College in late February and Minnesota to finish out the season in early March.

While teams usually clamor to get more time at home (my conversation with Michigan Tech’s Jamie Russell two weeks ago comes to mind), Serratore is looking forward to a little time on the bus.

“Quite honestly, we need to get on the road a little. We’ve been at home too much right now and we’re going to get a dose of reality the second half of the year from the standpoint of how much we’re actually going to be on the road,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, and those teams don’t lose that often at home, but I think it’ll be exciting for our guys as well too because these are some new buildings they’re playing in and these are some different atmospheres they haven’t seen before.”

Different and often unfriendly, starting off this weekend, with their first visit to the Kohl Center.

T’s totally unscientific first-half player awards

Usually around this time of year I do mid-season grades, but I believe we’re doing that next week as part of the blog. Instead, I’m going to attempt to do a couple of player rankings. I say right now that I will undoubtedly leave someone out and I welcome your opinions in the comments (as they will be vast and varied).

Also, even though overlap typically happens between categories in real awards, I chopped that out in order to provide a wider base of players. For example: Denver’s Sam Brittain could have been in at least three of the following categories, but I put him in the one I felt he best fit.

Goalie of the first half

Nominees: Sam Brittain, DU; Aaron Dell, UND; Scott Gudmandson, UW

Winner: Gudmandson has put forward good stats with a bad record. Then again, Wisconsin is known as a goalie factory. Dell has been a nice surprise as well and almost takes this, but I don’t think you can deny Brittain this award.

Rookie of the first half

Nominees: Jason Zucker, DU; Mark Zengerle, UW; Jaden Schwartz, CC

Winner: Both Zucker and Zengerle have made an immediate impact. However, it’s rare when one player carries a team and even rarer when that player is a freshman. Schwartz, this one’s yours.

Player of the first half

Nominees: Matt Frattin, UND; Justin Fontaine, UMD; Jack Connolly, UMD; Mike Connolly, UMD

Winner: I couldn’t decide on anyone from Duluth without giving it to the whole line (they’re all just that good). So, I go with Frattin — NCAA leader in goals, consistent, tied for the nation’s lead in power-play goals. Good enough.

Biggest surprise of the first half

Nominees: Drew Shore, DU; Matt Ambroz, UNO

Winner: Shore. This category was hard to pick. I really welcome your ideas on this one because besides Shore (and to a lesser extent, his teammates Zucker and Brittain who weren’t eligible given my criteria), no one else came to mind.

Biggest disappointment of the first half

Nominee and Winner: Garrett Roe, SCSU. Roe oh Roe, where have you been? Every other year of his career, he’s averaged well over a point per game. This year, he’s well under, at 0.62, about half as much as his worst year (freshman, 1.15). If Roe picks it up, the team might as well. Hopefully. Again, this is another category where I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.


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  • nogopher

    Bull Dogs wll pound the gofers…

    • gopherphan

      not

  • Bucky Backer

    Hey nogopher nice comment, you managed to misspell a word and add a comment having nothing to do with the article, multi-talented I like it. But anyways for player of the first half/suprise of the first half how about Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz. Already has 22 points on the year which is equal to his total from 2009-10 and leading the nation in scoring from the blue line. All this while playing on the top D pair going up against the best line in college hockey (UMD) and a couple studs they have out in Denver. Just some food for thought, I’m trying to one up “no gopher”

    • nogopher

      I bow to your sportsmanship…

      btw: Misspelling and lack of proper capitalization are BOTH insults.

  • Guest

    Is it an insult to say Bull Dogs instead of the actual name: Bulldogs?

    • nogopher

      I am not a bulldog fan. But UMDuluth is the lessor of two evils…

  • Goalie Fan

    I think the biggest suprise would have to be Dell (UND). Being a starting goalie for the Sioux is almost as bad pressure wise as being Carey Price for the Habs! The town of Grand Forks expects alot from our team and caring the load can be somewhat difficult I assume. Eids… Sorry man =I love ya but what the hell has happened. As a guy that leads the league in games played last year with 41 as a sophmore, Id really like to know (besides the fact the Dell is playing well) why you have not stolen your spot back. Like Ive said all along Dell can win games but we need Eids for the Championship! Bring it back Eids please…..

    • http://ndgoon.blogspot.com Goon

      I think for Eids to play again he is going to have to really pick up his game, Dell has been solid and has one of the best GAA in WCHA Play.

  • Guest

    Biggest disappoint of the first half? That’s easy, Michigan Tech. On the other hand, EVERYONE predicted them to finish 12th so in that regard, they’re “meeting expectations.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GIBJKSWUV5575N6THXUHPQHPIA t s

    Biggest disappointment would be the whole Huskies team, save LaBlanc and Jensen.

  • Go4life

    I saw Roe play in Grand Forks. I was not impressed with his sportsmanship or level of play. LeBlanc was the top Huskie IMHO.

    Duluth and UNO have impressive starts. UND is impressive given the quality of teams they have played but they still lack the closer instinct. SCSU and UMTC are big disappointments.

    ‘Nuff said.

  • The Oil Drum

    I’m not really impressed with Dell or Eidsness. The rest of the Sioux team is exceptional. I expect them to make a good run in the tournament but that will be their downfall. As a UMD fan, I actually think the same is true for the Bulldogs. These teams arre clearly the cream of the crop in the WCHA but i dont know if they have what it takes to win it all.

  • tBulldogSnipers

    I think that JT Brown for UMD should have been throw in as a nominee for Rookie of the Year. I don’t believe he quite deserved to win it, because lets face it, he was up against some VERY talented guys, but I do believe he has done enough to have his name thrown in there with those other very talented freshman.

  • Big Loser

    Biggest disappointment is definitely Garret Roe. Not only is his scoring way down, but so is his diving! LOL For biggest surprise, I’d go with Aaron Dell. With Eidsness playing 41 games last year and being top 10 in the nation in GAA and Save %, no one saw Dell taking over the #1 goalie spot at UND. Now much of that has to do with Eidsness’s poor play. But to have Dell step in and play as good as he has was totally unexpected. I’d also give a nod to MSUM’s Cook for biggest surprise as well.

  • Tech Fan

    Biggest surprise? “besides Shore…, no one else came to mind”

    That is because DU is the only team you watch. JT Brown is by far the biggest surprise thus far.

  • Anonymous

    Bull Dogs wll pound the gofers.

    Wow-can’t spell OR predict.

    • nogopher

      Is “Wow-can’t” a word? Iis your second string of words even a sentence?

      I may not precisely predict but as Sioux fan I can really relax!

  • Sue

    Goaltending is going to kill UND late season. Dell has seen some shots but a lot of quality chances have been blocked before they got to the net, that is not going to happen against top 10 teams….except Yale or any other team in the EZAC. Bottom line is that either Dell or Eidsness has to catch on fire like Stalock did for UMD otherwise tSioux will have to score 6 GPG to win.

    • Jon

      That makes no sense. A big part of Sioux hockey is blocking shots and creating traffic. Dell has become a top goaltender in the WCHA for a reason. He stole the starting job from an upper classman and a goalie that took us to the NCAA tourney last year. UND has scheduled themselves against top 20 talent ALL SEASON, what exactly do you think is going to change?