When it came to goaltending for Bemidji State during the past three and a half years, Tom Serratore had a relatively simple decision: Just write in Michael Bitzer’s name and worry about everything else.
“It was easy,” Serratore said during a media call before the season started, referring to the fact that he had an All-American playing nearly every game between the pipes for almost four years. “I liked that decision, having the ability to just play Bitz. Just knowing that he was going to play and knowing that he was going to play pretty well, you slept pretty good knowing you had Bitz.”
But Bitzer graduated last spring, leaving the Beavers with three unproven netminders on the roster. The big, obvious question for Bemidji State at the start of the year was, “Which one of them would play?”
The secondary question was, “How good would they be?”
So far, both of those questions have been answered.
Sophomore Hank Johnson and transfer Zach Driscoll have formed a pretty solid two-man rotation for the Beavers through eight games this season, helping the Beavers to a 5-2-1 record so far. Johnson has played in all of BSU’s Friday games — including the big season-opening win over North Dakota — while Driscoll has played Saturday nights.
“We had a guy in Mike Bitzer over the course of the last four years we leaned heavily on,” Serratore said Wednesday morning. “It’s a big loss, and we were wondering who was going to replace him, but these guys have done a great job. It’s a pleasant surprise.”
Johnson, from Minneapolis, has allowed five goals and recorded one shutout, while Driscoll, of Apple Valley, Minn., has allowed four goals — one in each game so far. Driscoll’s save percentage leads the nation (.959, which adds up to 93 saves in four games) while Johnson’s is fourth (92 saves, .948).
Both are listed as 6 feet on BSU’s roster.
“They’re a little smaller, but they rely on their athleticism,” Serratore said, noting that they’ve both been good “first-save” goalies. “Both of them, they’re doing their job. They’re stopping the first puck, they’re allowing us to defend after the first shot, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Johnson played in just one game for the BSU last season, in relief of Bitzer during a lopsided game the Beavers were losing. Driscoll, meanwhile, had 14 games of collegiate experience under his belt at St. Cloud State but returned to junior hockey for the 2017-18 season and hadn’t played a competitive collegiate game since Feb. 2017.
“It’s a small sample size, we know that, but over the course of eight games, we’re very happy with our goaltending tandem right now,” Serratore added. “They’re pushing each other, and that’s good for our hockey team.”
It just makes the Beavers an even tougher team on the back end.
Serratore figured BSU’s experienced defensive corps would be pretty good, and it has been — evidenced by the goals they’ve allowed and the penalty kill numbers (83.9 percent – decent for most teams but actually a little low for the Beavers, traditionally). Seniors Justin Baudry, Dillon Eichstadt, Dan Billett and Ian Janco and junior Tommy Muck have been able to help the new goalies keep their heads above water in the early going.
“That’s the one area of strength we have,” Serratore said. “We had six new forwards and inexperience at goal. But the one area of experience we had coming in was on the back line and I think that’s helped that transition for our goaltenders. I don’t think there’s any question that’s helped. Some of these guys like Baudry, Buillett, Muck, Eichstadt, they’ve eaten a lot of minutes over the course of the last three, four years.
“They all have good toughness to their game and they’re hard to play against. That bodes well for our team defense on a young team.”
That young team will get arguably its toughest test yet this weekend, when the Beavers head to St. Cloud State for an instate rivalry game. The Huskies are No. 2 in the latest USCHO poll and coming off a sweep of Denver to cement their status as one of the best teams in the country.
“We know what we’re going into. We’re playing the most talented team in the country. They’re a team that doesn’t have any deficiencies,” Serratore said. “We can sit there and look at the numbers, but they have the best numbers in the country overall and the most offense in the country. They’re playing at home. We have our work cut out for us, there’s no question about that, but it’s going to be a good test to see where we’re at right now.”