Bemidji’s Close Call

In a game such as this, where it’s a one and done, a hot goaltender could make the difference.

Bemidji State netminder Matt Clime had a great start in his team’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Denver last Saturday, the program’s first in Division I. Climie made several point-blank saves against the vaunted Denver arsenal. Playing a team enthused with energy, he backstopped the Beavers to an even 20 minutes to open up the Northeast semifinal in Amherst, despite not feeling at his best.

“I wasn’t myself in the first period, I was a bit intimidated and felt a bit nervous, said the freshman goalie, who came to the Beavers from the Maritime Junior A Hockey League. “As the game went on, I felt I could play against those guys. I got into a groove and calmed down.”

The native of Leduc, Alberta, came into the game knowing he had to be a hero, whether he’ll ever admit it or not. As the first period moved along, it was apparent that the hopes of the Beavers rested on the goalies, the heroics of theirs, and the early shakyness of Pioneers’ netminder Glenn Fisher.

The Beavers, NCAA hockey’s most successful program, knew that it would be a tough day.

As coach Tom Serratore told me last Thursday, it was “pick your poison” regarding the team’s first round opponent. However, it is much easier to get either very excited or very intimidated by the prospects of facing the defending champions.

Judging by the opening stanza, they were fired up.

The second period slowed, and Bemidji looked like they were holding on a bit as the speed of Denver began to take over. Denver started quick when Kevin Ulanski beat his check to the bottom of the right wing circle and took a quick feed from down low. His low shot squeezed through the pads of Clime for a 3-2 lead just 1:02 into period 2. At this point, despite the obvious game plan of shooting high, Denver had scored twice on the ice, 5-hole, on Clime.

The Beavers never wilted and kept up their pressure forecheck game. Their experience due to a tough non-conference road schedule the past two seasons were obvious as they matched the Pioneers shot for shot.

Denver controlled the third, but the Beavers didn’t fold. It was obvious that two things were in play here. The first was that Denver was the team on the ice better prepared to create chances where none existed, and secondly, their higher level of talent was not allowing the heart of Bemidji to carry the play like they did in long stretches of the first period.

Climie meanwhile stood his ground, squarely in the middle of the storm. He made point blank saves on Paul Stastny twice, and robbed J.D.Corbin high glove side while most of his teammates watched Corbin look like Michigan’s T.J. Hensick in creating the scoring chance. Midway through the period, Denver had a 26-13 advantage in shots, and had generated some very good scoring chances.

“Look at the octane of that team,” said Serratore. “They have a ton of talent and they were playing high octane hockey. We might have been flat of times, but we never deviated from our game plan and we played Beaver hockey.”

The third period was no different, except you could see the Beavers starting to climb back into the game territorially. Despite the wide shot advantage (11-3), it was Bemidji who scored, tying the game early on a goal by Brendan Cook on the power play. Hard work in a 1v1 battle, the staple of the Beavers all afternoon, led to a turnover that caromed out to defenseman Peter Jonsson. Johnsson threw it on goal, Cook tipped it, and there was life in Bemidji until their hopes were dashed by a redirected shot in OT that sealed their fate.

Serratore was upbeat after the game, as his team could have not played any better.

As he had told me earlier in the week, he expected a close game, he expected his team to be right there at the end, and that his guys were not playing the role of “being just happy to be there.”

Their energy, especially early, was obviously gained from the energy of their diminutive Head Coach, who talks as passionately about his program as one would of a son or daughter.

“We are on the hockey map,” he responded somewhat bemused at the post game press conference when asked if this game signaled that his team had arrived. “We’ve won 13 national championships, we are the most successful NCAA hockey program ever, it’s like St. John’s in small college football. We have accomplished so much as a program.”

When reflecting on the game, Serratore reflected on the parity of college hockey, and what separates the No. 1 seeds from the No. 4 seeds. He pointed out the high talent level of Boston College, Minnesota, and Colorado College, mentioning their depth and talent.

“Hockey is a frame of mind game,” said Serratore, who played for the legendary Bob Peters from 1983-87. “When they scored that third goal so early in the second period, I thought “oh oh, here it comes.”

“We settled down right away, and those five minutes after a goal against are so important. We played very well after that. And when we tied it 3-3, I really felt we were going to win the game, hands down. While not as talented as them, heart, grit, and character are a big makeup of a hockey team, and we have a ton of that.”

It was obvious that some of the Pioneers played subpar games, especially early. However, teams that have been there before carry that knowledge that they’ll win these games, and Denver found a way.

Kevin Ulanski, out the past four games, went to the net off a won draw, and the shot hit his shin guard and went in.

“Its always a greasy goal that wins an OT goal, and that was for sure,” said Serratore. “However, in OT, great players make great plays. Skinner did a great job to get that puck on goal.”

So the Beavers headed back to the hotel and pack for the trip home. However, the defending CHA champions have a lot to be proud of. If the grease was in the other end of the ice, they’d be playing for the Northeast Regional Championship.

They are not far off.

Dave Starman serves as an analyst on CSTV Friday Night Hockey and contributes weekly to Starman has coached professionally and in the amateur ranks.