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.