Bemidji State captures first-ever MacNaughton Cup on strength of strong first half

19 Oct 13: Nate Arentz (Bemidji State - 6). The Bemidji State University Beavers host the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in a non-conference matchup at the  Sanford Center in Bemidji, MN (Jim Rosvold)
Bemidji State captain Nate Arentz has led the Beavers to the MacNaughton Cup in the team’s seventh season in the WCHA (photo: Jim Rosvold).

The first thing that Nate Arentz noticed about the MacNaughton Cup was the weight.

“I was having an argument with someone else and they were saying that the Stanley Cup was heavier,” the Bemidji State senior forward and captain said. “I said, ‘No way.’ And I was right, because it’s definitely heavy.”

Arentz and the rest of the Beavers got to test it for themselves Friday night in Huntsville, Ala., lifting all 40 pounds of the three-foot high trophy high above their heads after beating Alabama Huntsville 3-2 at the Von Braun Center, clinching their first-ever WCHA regular-season title.

The Beavers have been members of the WCHA for seven years, but had previously finished no higher than fourth place in the league standings.

And even though BSU has won plenty of league titles in other leagues (and when they were a Division II and III powerhouse back in the day), this one is still special for head coach Tom Serratore.

“It’s one of the coolest trophies in hockey,” Serratore said. “Everybody knows about the Stanley Cup, the Calder Cup, the Turner Cup. There are some old traditional trophies, but the MacNaughton Cup being 104 years old has its own history, its own tradition.”

In fact, the MacNaughton Cup is so old it predates the existence of Bemidji State itself. The Cup was built for $2,000 in 1913. Bemidji State opened its doors in 1919.

The Beavers are just the 14th team to win the trophy, but perhaps what makes BSU’s win so significant is that they clinched the title with two weeks to go in the regular season. Considering the way the WCHA has played out in the years since realignment, that’s almost unheard of.

In each of the past three seasons before this one, the Cup wasn’t clinched until the final day of the regular season. Heck, in 2012-13 — the year before realignment — Minnesota needed to beat Bemidji State on the final day of the regular season to clinch a share of the Cup along with St. Cloud State.

This year was different.

The Beavers shot out to a big lead thanks to their 13-game conference unbeaten streak and were able to wrap up the MacNaughton Cup before Valentine’s Day.

“We were fortunate enough to win those first four games early in the year, it really jump-started us, and created a little separation right away. We were able to build off that,” Serratore said. “And then the second half of the year, which is usually split city, the lead we created early helped give us that cushion.”

The Beavers are currently 19-12-3 overall and 19-5-2 in the conference with just two WCHA games left (a home series against Minnesota State Feb. 24-25).

They’ve already clinched the No. 1 seed as well as home ice throughout the playoffs, thanks to the WCHA’s new three-round, on-campus tournament format.

Just a few more victories and BSU can return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009-10. That year was also the last time the Beavers won hardware, as they took home the regular-season crown in the last-ever season of College Hockey America.

NMU’s Tolvanen nears NCAA record

Sometimes the most valuable player doesn’t come from a team that wins the league championship.

And if Northern Michigan holds onto playoff spot, sophomore goalie Atte Tolvanen has been the WCHA’s MVP this season.

Tolvanen tied an NCAA record this week with his fourth and fifth consecutive shutouts. The Finn hasn’t allowed a goal since a 6-1 win against Alaska Anchorage on Jan. 20 and has a shutout streak of 335:39.

That’s second all-time behind former Lake Superior State goalie Blaine Lacher, who had 375:01 of consecutive shutout hockey in 1994.

Tolvanen can grab that streak and consecutive games record this weekend when Northern Michigan travel to Minnesota State for a two-game series.

And here’s the most impressive thing about Tolvanen’s streak  – he’s done it when his team’s season was on life support. Before the shutout streak started, Northern Michigan was in danger of missing the eight-team WCHA playoffs.

The Wildcats were 5-12-3 in WCHA play and the only reason they even had five wins was because of the goaltending.

But Tolvanen found his stride and Northern Michigan started playing better defensively, limiting shots to the outside and allowing the Finn to better see the shot lanes.

Ice Chips

— After scoring seven goals last weekend, Alabama Huntsville now has a total of nine players who have reached double-digit point totals in the 2016-17 season. That’s the most in the program’s WCHA history and most since 2009-10, when the Chargers had 11 players with 10 points or more. Leading the way for them is Josh Kestner, who has nine goals and 13 assists for a total of 22 points.

— Alaska Anchorage beat Lake Superior State 3-2 on Friday and tied 4-4 on Saturday, taking four points. Their seven goals in the series is the most the Seawolves have scored in a two-game series all season. The Seawolves are also 6-6-4 in the last 16 games, compared to their 1-11-2 start of the season.

— Alaska plays its final home series of the season and host Lake Superior State in weekend series that will help determine playoff seeding. The Nanooks are 4-8 at home this season, so they’ll want to reverse that trend a bit.

— Bowling Green goalie Chris Nell had his second shutout of the season last weekend in a 3-0 win against Mercyhurst. It’s been a rough season for Nell and Bowling Green after they were picked to win the WCHA in the preseason. However, if Nell is playing well, the Falcons could be a threat in the playoffs.

— Ferris State senior forward Gerald Mayhew has moved up to sixth place in the Hobey Baker fan vote. Mayhew is tied with Minnesota State’s Marc Michaelis for the WCHA lead in points with 25 in conference play on 13 goals and 12 assists.

— Lake Superior State is winless in its last four games, but the Lakers remain tied with Northern Michigan for sixth place in the league standings; they’re just one point behind Ferris State for fifth. Sophomore forward Mitch Hults continues to lead the Lakers with nine goals and 20 assists for 29 points in 30 games this season

— Michigan Tech hosted its Winter Carnival last weekend and claimed the MacInnes Cup for the fifth year in a row after beating Ferris State 5-2 in Saturday’s game. Tech lost 3-2 on Friday, eliminating them from MacNaughton Cup consideration. The second-place Huskies are idle this weekend and could potentially be passed by third-place Minnesota State depending on how the Mavericks do this weekend.

— Minnesota State was idle last weekend. The Mavericks, third place in the WCHA standings, have gone 7-4-2 in the last 13 games. MSU hosts Northern Michigan this weekend in the home finale. The Mavs could still earn second at the end of the season with help from Tech, but can for sure clinch no worse than fourth place this weekend with a victory.

Players of the Week

This week’s WCHA players of the week are Northern Michigan junior forward Robbie Payne (offensive), Tolvanen (defensive) and Bemidji State freshman defenseman Zach Whitecloud (defensive).