Saturday would have been a great way to go into the holiday break. After Friday’s 4-3 loss where about the only things UMD did really wrong were a couple breakdowns in its own zone and a general lack of energy for parts of the third period, the Bulldogs ground out a 3-1 win on Saturday to split the series in Denver and guarantee at least a month in first place in the NCHC.

(There are no league games now until Jan. 6-7, and Denver doesn’t have any league games until Jan. 13-14. So that’s the earliest the Pioneers could again pass UMD in the standings, assuming the Bulldogs don’t take points in their first games out of break against Colorado College.)

It looked to the untrained eye like UMD probably played better on Friday, and Denver on Saturday, but there’s little doubt that a split was the correct result of the series. The games were played with great pace (especially Friday) and a playoff-like intensity (Saturday). It was a superb way for the league to go into its holiday hiatus, and it was a good gauge of where both teams are in the pecking order.

(Spoiler alert: UMD and Denver are both legit. And whoever voted Penn State No. 1 ahead of both of them in the national polls — meaningless as they are — should out themselves as someone who either roots openly for Penn State or just didn’t care enough to watch either game of UMD-Denver. If anyone wants to know why the polls will never matter in college hockey, it’s because you have voters who think they’re smarter than everyone else. The fact Penn State has a great record and beat and tied Notre Dame is wonderful, and the sport will be better if the new programs succeed quickly. No doubt. But there’s no way a team can play the schedule Penn State has and still possess an argument for being better than UMD and Denver, given their schedules and records. /rant)

There were plays made by both teams last weekend that couldn’t be made by 50 of the 60 teams in Division I. It was just a treat to witness both games in person.

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Over the last decade or so, about the only thing Bemidji State hasn’t done to UMD is knock it out of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the fact UMD leads the all-time series 22-14-2, the last 22 meetings have been decidedly in favor of Bemidji. The Beavers started that all-time series 1-15. Since the start of the 2005-2006 season, which opened with a two-game sweep by Bemidji State at the DECC, the Bulldogs are just 7-13-2 (.364 winning percentage) against their Highway 2 rivals.

“We won a lot of coin flips,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said this week. “We got the last break, we got that last bounce, whatever you want to call it. We’re not going to apologize for it, but we’ve been very fortunate against UMD lately.”

Serratore’s admission that there may be some luck involved is noble, and it isn’t completely wrong. Of the 13 BSU wins over the last decade and change, seven have been by one goal, including three in overtime. Both of last year’s meetings, the day-late season opener in Bemidji and the power outage Tuesday night makeup game in Duluth, were decided by one goal (3-2 and 2-1 BSU wins).

“I think they’ve had this circled since last year,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of his players. “It’s going to be another great battle, a great challenge. Both teams are at the top of their leagues, and want to go into break on a high note.”

Serratore wasn’t about to divulge state secrets, but it’s clear that Bemidji has been able to frustrate UMD in the past. A few examples:

  • Outshot UMD 11-4 and scored the only third-period goal in last year’s Tuesday makeup game, a 2-1 win at Amsoil Arena.
  • Despite being outshot at one point 12-2 in last season’s opener at Bemidji, the Beavers kept UMD off the board and got a goal by Charlie O’Connor with 22 seconds left to beat UMD 3-2. Final shots ended up 33-30 Bemidji despite the early flurry.
  • Ran UMD’s winless streak to four with a 4-0 smothering to open the 2015 North Star College Cup in St. Paul. That led to a players-only meeting after the game and a UMD win over Minnesota for third place the next afternoon.
  • Held on for dear life to beat UMD 2-1 at Amsoil Arena in the 2012-13 season. UMD led in shots 34-19, including 13-4 in the third, but trailed 2-0 after two and only mustered one goal in that third period.

This was mentioned last year, but the last two Bemidji State teams have featured a combo platter of speed and skill with puck-moving defensemen and a commitment to the hard-nosed style Serratore wants them to play. When this Beavers team is executing at the level its top players are capable of, they’re hard to do anything notable against.

“They’ve always been strong defensively,” Sandelin said. “Up front, they’ve got an older group. Maybe not some big names, but those kids can play hockey. They play very well under Tom’s system. I watched the North Dakota series (two closely-contested UND wins in October) before we played North Dakota. They simply out-worked and out-competed North Dakota, and out-executed them, because that’s what they do.”

Having watched the same video Sandelin did that week, I sent along a tweet portraying my similar feelings.

This team doesn’t wow you with it’s flash and pizzazz. There is speed and skill up front with guys like the Fitzgerald triplets (Myles, Gerry, and Leo), Brendan Harms, O’Connor, Phillip Marinaccio, and Kyle Bauman.

“I like our skill level up front,” Serratore said, mentioning guys like Cory Ward and John Parker, who have graduated, in noting that last year’s team had a similar makeup. “I really liked our team last year, but this year the guys are finding a way to get it done.”

More significant than how Bemidji State plays up front, however, is the improved play of its defensemen. Serratore noted he had three or four freshmen in the lineup at times last year, with captain Graeme McCormack being the only guy they had with a lot of experience. He’s gone, but what’s left is a group of vastly-improved blue-liners like Brett Beauvais, Dan Billett, Dillon Eichstadt, and Justin Beaudry, along with freshmen in Tommy Muck and Zach Whitecloud that Serratore is a big fan of.

“Last year, that defensive corps was young,” Serratore said. “We had five underclassmen in the lineup every game. That played a lot, too. This year, they’ve taken a step.”

This group can move the puck and make plays. Gone (for the most part) are the days of chip-out-and-take-an-icing Bemidji State hockey. Everyone does that once in a while, but it always felt more frequent with some of BSU’s teams from a few years ago. Now, they’re still going to play very well defensively, very structured, and will make it very tough on UMD to make plays, but the Beavers can counter with speed. I’d even go so far as to say their transition game looks as good on video as any UMD has faced, outside of maybe Denver.

The Bulldogs will have to take very good care of the puck, and part of that will be avoiding goalie Michael Bitzer when dumping into the zone. He can start the breakout, and in doing so negate UMD’s ability to establish a forecheck. That piece is similar to what UMD dealt with in Denver with goalie Tanner Jaillet, but Bitzer’s numbers are actually better than Jaillet’s, suggesting another very difficult challenge awaits UMD in the offensive zone this weekend.

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Serratore knows his team has a tough matchup this weekend.

“I like their experience,” he said. “They kept a lot of guys this year. A couple could have turned pro and didn’t. They’re experienced, they’re fast, they’ve got an experienced defensive corps. They’ve got a well-rounded team. We’re excited to play, but know who we’re playing.”

Serratore is speaking of guys like captain Dominic Toninato and defenseman Carson Soucy, both of whom could have left school early. Soucy has been very good as of late, with 12 of his 13 points in UMD’s ten NCHC games. But that’s not it. Seniors Alex Iafallo (10-10-20) and Kyle Osterberg (9-7-16) are having great seasons so far. UMD’s fourth line with Sammy Spurrell, Billy Exell, and Jade Miller had a good weekend in Denver, with Spurrell getting his first goal of the season and Exell netting the eventual game-winner on Saturday.

Freshman Hunter Miska’s save percentage is up to .925 in league play, but Bitzer is having a ridiculous season and actually trumps Miska across the board. That matchup will be fun to watch this weekend.

If you’re attending the games, bring a new teddy bear, whether you’re heading to Duluth or Bemidji. Both venues are holding a Teddy Bear Toss during their home games. I highly recommend the oversized county fair style bears.