Beavers have their work cut out with everything in front of them against UST

Feb. 22—There's no denying the Bemidji State men's hockey season has been filled with inconsistencies.

On the surface, the Beavers look like any other middle-of-the-road college hockey team. But even with a record of 13-15-2 (11-7-2 CCHA, 37 pts) and a 40th-place position in the PairWise rankings, BSU has its NCAA Tournament fate in the palms of its own hands.

After wrapping up another five-point series against Ferris State on Friday night, players, coaches and fans knew they'd head into a crucial series with St. Thomas this weekend in, at worst, second place.

However, with the help of Bowling Green taking five of six possible points on the road from the Tommies, the Beavers enter their last four CCHA games with a two-point edge over the next three teams — UST, BGSU and Minnesota State.

"Our guys have a good mentality right now," head coach Tom Serratore said. "Our guys have earned some points over the last two series to put us in (first) place. ... When you have a league that's so tight the way (the CCHA) is, a couple of hot weekends puts you in a pretty good spot. Look at Bowling Green; they were left for dead. They were left for dead a couple of weeks ago."

The Tommies, Falcons and Mavericks all sit in a tie for second place with 35 points. It's one of the tightest races for the MacNaughton Cup ever.

Bowling Green spent the first two-thirds of this season as a CCHA bottom feeder, but with a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games, the Falcons are back in the thick of the league title chase.

All four teams with realistic chances to win the MacNaughton Cup have their shortcomings, including Bemidji State. The Beavers are near the bottom in the country's power play (14.9%, 54th), penalty kill (74.7%, 59th) and faceoff (45.8%, 59th) ranks.

Despite their struggles, one aspect of their game is head-and-shoulders ahead of most teams in the country. BSU serves the sixth-fewest penalty minutes per game in Division I at 7.5.

"We pride ourselves on being disciplined," Serratore said. "Most teams do. We are pretty disciplined. Hopefully, that carries over into this weekend. Year in and year out, we've pretty much stayed out of the penalty box. You're going to get your share of penalties, but you try to minimize it, and we have minimized it. We play hard when the game's going on. When the game's not going on between whistles, you don't see a lot of crud from us."

Serratore is right.

The Beavers were the second-least penalized team in the country last year (7.4 minutes per game). In 2021-22, BSU slipped down to 33rd at 11.0 per game after finishing with the fourth-best mark at 7.9 in 2020-21.

"It's something we talk about a lot," forward Jere Vaisanen said. "We want to check with our feet. Don't get your stick mixed in anywhere and take stupid penalties."

With six of the most valuable points in the CCHA up for grabs this weekend, Serratore doesn't expect Bemidji State or St. Thomas to cave into the dirtier side of hockey.

"This time of year, if you want to be chippy, you're playing games you shouldn't be playing, and it backfires on you," Serratore said. "It doesn't matter if we're playing St. Thomas, Ferris, Bowling Green, Lake (Superior) State or whoever — (other) teams that aren't in our state — the whole mindset stays the same.

"The games need to be played the same way. There's too much on the line to worry about if you're playing an in-state rival. This (weekend) has nothing to do with us playing an in-state rivalry. This has to do with the magnitude of the game and where you're at in the standings. I don't buy into the chippiness. If there is chippiness, it has nothing to do with the in-state rivalry."

Bemidji State has also excelled in its 5-on-5 defense, with just 10 goals allowed in its last eight games.

"I think it's a testament to our players," Serratore said. "Take a look at our defensive game. Since the (Michigan) Tech series (on Jan. 19-20), we've given up 10 5-on-5 goals. That puts you in a pretty good spot if you've given up 1.25 5-on-5 goals per game."

The Beavers swept St. Thomas at home on Oct. 27-28 in their first CCHA series this season, but aside from the six points that sit as the base of BSU's total, that series is irrelevant now. So is Bemidji State's 22-2-2 head-to-head record in 26 games with the Tommies.

"It's been a long time since we played them," freshman Jake McLean said. "We played them at the start of the year, so I'm sure we'll see a different team from the first time we swept them here. They've had a good year with sustained success. It's going to be, by far, the biggest weekend of the year. It should be a good test for our group."