By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
In typical Tom Serratore fashion, when asked about this weekend's series against Minnesota State the veteran head coach was straight to the point.
"We want to make sure that we have good balance to our game this upcoming weekend on both sides of the puck and we are doing the things necessary to help us advance when we get into the playoffs; that's how I look at this weekend," stated Serratore, now in his 18th season as Bemidji State men's head hockey coach. "I don't have a crystal ball to see what's going to happen nor does Mankato but we want to make sure we focus on us and how we are playing and how consistent we are when it comes to that 60-minute effort."
Consistency is a word that has been used a lot lately in Paul Bunyan territory when discussing the Beavers. It's one of the main reasons why the Bemidji State, who have gone 7-4-3 over their last 14 games, have played their way into fifth place in the conference standings and have put themselves in position for home ice in the first round of the upcoming WCHA playoffs. If they can survive this weekend and hold off a charging Michigan Tech team (two points behind BSU heading into this final weekend of regular season hockey), the Beavers will be sleeping in their own beds next week when the "second season" (the playoff season) begins. It's no wonder the always charismatic bench boss didn't mince any words – he had work to do and so does his team.
"The idea of having home ice in the playoffs is huge," added Zach Driscoll, the Beavers sophomore netminder who has been named the WCHA Goaltender of the Week three times this season. "It's a lot more comfortable to play at home in your rink and sleep in your bed. We are treating these last few games like we are already in the playoffs. Playoff hockey is hard, it's fast and its physical- it's all of those things. Our guys in the locker room know that and I expect us to play up to those standards."
The word consistency also works for Driscoll; a transfer from St. Cloud State playing his first season in green and white. But it wasn't always that way.
If you recall, coming into the season Driscoll, fellow sophomore Henry Johnson and junior Jack Burgart had the unenvious task of filling the shoes (or pads) of Michael Bitzer; the all-everything goaltender who had roamed the Sanford Center the previous four seasons. Everyone knew his name, his historic performances and the numbers he cemented in the BSU men's hockey record book. To say there was some uncertainty surrounding the Bemidji State's goaltending situation could be ranked right up there with other obvious statements like … the Beavers believe this weekend's series with Minnesota State is important.
"He's (Bitzer) a goalie you can't replace. He was an All-American and a four-year starter. I just wanted to come in and compete for that spot. We have three goalies who can all play so for me it came down to just working hard in practice and giving myself a chance," remarked Driscoll. "At first it was a little overwhelming; getting asked a lot about replacing him. I kind of had a similar experience in St. Cloud when I came in and replaced (Charlie) Lindgren; there were big shoes to fill there too. When you lose a guy like that he's a big part of the program so you expect people to talk about it."
"You can definitely say there was some uncertainty," chuckled senior defenseman Justin Baudry, the Beavers co-captain and currently second in the WCHA in scoring among blueliners with 28 points. "I think we knew that too as a leadership group. We also had eight or nine freshmen coming and when you see that many new players coming in there is going to be a lot of roles to fill and a lot of team building. It's an opportunity to find out what kind of characters we have on the team. What kind of team are we going to be and how is everyone going to adjust to filling those roles?"
To start, both Johnson and Driscoll shared time in the pipes before the starting nod went Johnson's way more and more. Driscoll, who last played college hockey for St. Cloud State during the 2016-17 season going 6-6-1; found himself playing in just seven of the Beavers first 19 games. His numbers were good but Johnson's were better (1.80 GAA through 12 games). And it went beyond just numbers. Like all coaches – on every pond, rink and arena where the sounds of sticks and skates dominate the landscape, Tom Serratore was looking for, well, consistency. When it comes to goaltending, riding the hot hand is another one of those no-brainer statements. Johnson had the warm glove.
Then in late December against Air Force Driscoll, an Apple Valley, Minn. product, entered the game in relief of Johnson and allowed one goal in 26 minutes of hockey. The next time out against Bowling Green Driscoll stopped 22 of 24 shots as the Beavers evened their record at the time (9-9-3) with a 3-2 win. The following night….21 saves on 24 shots. It's been the Driscoll show ever since.
Now nearly two months later, Driscoll and the Beavers are still rolling as they seemed to have found that consistency that sometimes eludes the best of us. Here is another no-brainer … when the goalie plays well the team often follows. When the team plays well the goalie, more than any other position, reaps the benefits. To date Driscoll ranks fourth in the WCHA in goals against average (2.12). He is also fifth in the league in save percentage (.916) and fourth in winning percentage. Not surprisingly, as a team, Bemidji State is third in goals allowed and second in penalty kill. To take it even further, since Driscoll officially kicked off his most recent stretch of consecutive games played on Jan. 3 (14 games) he has posted three shutouts and has stopped 333 of 362 shots (.919 save percentage). During that stretch the Beavers have outscored their opponents 39-29.
"After the Christmas break things kind of flipped and I had a good weekend and coach stuck with me. It means a lot as a goalie when the coach has trust in you and puts you on the ice when you know there are other capable guys who can also do it. It helps confidence-wise going out there and being the guy," mentioned Driscoll. "We lost some big pieces from last year so we didn't know what to expect at the start of the year. I think we played with some inconsistency during that first half of the year and things are clicking a little bit right now and at the right time."
"I'd say the number one thing is communication. Whoever is playing you just want to make sure they are comfortable and they understand what is going on during the game and you want to help build their confidence throughout. As a defenseman, that's what we are here to do; to make sure they are confident in games," added Baudry. "That's exactly what has given us success. When our team is playing a full 60 minutes of hockey offensively and defensively as a five-man unit on the ice and we are consistent, that is when our team has had success. We know if we want to continue to win in the future that consistency is going to bring us that success."
There isn't an area of their game that has benefited more from that "you scratch my back I scratch yours" relationship than the penalty kill. In a word, Bemidji State has been suffocating when down a skater this season, and more specifically, over their last 14 games. This past Friday, when Bowling Green tallied a power play goal early in the second period, it was the first time BSU had allowed a power play goal since December 30th, 2018! Up to that point Bemidji State had been a perfect 39-for-39. Now heading into Mankato this weekend, the Beavers are 46-for-47 on the penalty kill since the first of the year. Their opponent tonight and tomorrow is No. 1 in the conference on the power play operating at 22 percent. With so much at stake for both teams it's just another small reason why this intrastate battle is shaping up to be a classic.
"You have to remember goaltending isn't just the goalie making saves, it's also the other five guys on the ice and your penalty kill. Our penalty kill has been strong during the second half of the year as well so that's helped statistically with Zach," replied Serratore. "Probably the main reason our penalty kill has been good during the second half of the year has been because our goaltending has been good so it goes hand in hand. Everyone has to take responsibility defensively. We have an experienced defensive core and I think that also helps and Zach is getting more and more comfortable.
"Our record is outstanding the second half of the year and throughout the course of the last 10 games we are playing pretty good hockey. You take a look at that sample size and you want it to carry over into this weekend," continued Serratore. "It's a very difficult place to play on the road. I just look at things a little different- I just want to play good hockey going into the playoffs; that's the biggest thing. Where are we at with our details? Where are we at with our habits? Just taking care of that part of the game takes care of itself and if we do that I think as a coach you have to be happy."
A goaltender riding a hot streak helps the mood as well.