Beavers, Bulldogs battle to begin men's hockey season
BEMIDJI, Minn.—Opening night can't come soon enough for Bemidji State.
The Beavers men's hockey team will open its MacNaughton Cup title-defense at home Friday night, Oct. 13, to last year's national runner-up Minnesota-Duluth.
The 2017-18 season has already begun for most programs in NCAA Division I hockey, but the Beavers are raring to go after the extra bye week.
"You can only simulate game situations so much in practice," head coach Tom Serratore said. "But it's that time where it seems like all the other teams have played games in college hockey except us. So Friday can't come quick enough for the guys."
BSU will meet a UMD team that doesn't look quite the same as it did last April when it fell 3-2 to Denver in the national championship game. The Bulldogs lost seven seniors to graduation and three underclassmen to the NHL—goalie Hunter Miska, forward Adam Johnson and defenseman Neal Pionk.
Yet UMD has young talent in players such as sophomore forward Riley Tufte (a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner) and freshman defenseman Dylan Samberg (fresh off his second state title with Hermantown).
"They lost a couple guys early and they got an outstanding freshman class," Serratore said. "They're not missing a beat ... They've got depth and they can score goals."
The No. 5 Bulldogs hosted the Ice Breaker Tournament last weekend and beat previously No. 3 Minnesota 4-3 in overtime before falling 4-3 to Michigan Tech in the championship.
The Beavers, meanwhile, will enjoy having seven of their first 10 games at the Sanford Center. BSU is familiar with hot starts after winning 11 of its first 14 games last season on the way to a Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship.
But the Beavers, like the WCHA as a whole, struggled against nonconference opponents, going 0-7-1 outside the league.
"Last year we didn't do too great in the nonconference games," senior forward Gerry Fitzgerald said. "It's huge to set the tone for sure this year and we just need to have a hot start."
Fitzgerald and his brothers, Leo and Myles, are back for their senior seasons to offensively lead a team that will be without three of its top five scorers from 2016-17 after the graduations of Phil Marinaccio, Brendan Harms and Charlie O'Connor.
"Bottom line is, somebody's gotta step up," Serratore said. "Every year you're gonna lose players. Every team in the country lost players last year."
Forward Brendan Harris highlights an experienced freshman class. The Henderson, Nev., native was the BCHL's Most Valuable Player after his 98-point season in 2016-17.
"We have a very good freshman class," Serratore said. "I'm really excited about this group ... It's an older group, they're battle tested."
The Beavers retain a solid defensive corps with Zach Whitecloud, Dan Billett and Justin Baudry on the blue line.
And of course, senior Michael Bitzer will backstop the Beavers in net after his All-American campaign last year.
"I just want to keep moving forward and developing," the former Moorhead Spuds standout said. "If that means another season like last year, that's great, but I think the big thing is just keep growing everyday and those kind of things will take care of themselves."
Though having one of the nation's best goalies behind them certainly helps in crunchtime, Serratore said the Beavers will have to step up in other departments if they want to make a deeper run in the WCHA playoffs after last season's semifinal exit to Bowling Green.
"You can't just look on Mike Bitzer to be the savior every game," Serratore said. "Everybody has to step to the plate. Everybody has to pitch in a little bit. And again you hope that every game, somebody else kind of brings a little bit something different to the table."
Bemidji State will start what it hopes will be the road to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010 at 7:07 Friday night at the Sanford Center. The teams will move to Duluth for the final game of the series at 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14.