Don't talk to Tom Serratore about the fact that through 14 weeks his squad is standing alone in second place in the WCHA; five points behind league-leading Minnesota State.
Don't throw numbers his way, statistics like the Beavers currently lead the league in scoring during conference play (one goal more than Minnesota State); that they are second in team defense and second in penalty kill and despite having eight freshman and eight sophomores on their roster, BSU has become arguably the most balanced team in the WCHA with an all-league caliber goaltender to boot in Zach Driscoll. Don't try to shower the veteran head coach with praise because he simply doesn't want to hear it.
A professor when it comes to the ups and downs one experiences during the course of a college hockey season, Serratore knows that you are only as good as your last game. As for the next one … and the next … and the next? If you take a look at Bemidji State's schedule from this point forward, you'll understand why he and his squad don't have time to address the past. Its full steam ahead with little, okay zero, room for error. More on that later.
Tensions are high and so is confidence.
Picked to finish fifth in the conference at the beginning of the season by the media and third by league coaches, Bemidji State has quietly, and methodically, blown through their first 22 games with the type of blue-collar work ethic and "team first" attitude that reminds Beaver fans of championship squads from years past. Despite going winless in their first four games, since then, BSU is 12-5-1 overall and has won 12 of their 16 league games (12-7-3 overall, 12-3-1 WCHA heading into this weekend) including their last four contests against Ferris State and Alabama Huntsville.
Tops in the conference in scoring at a rate of nearly four goals per game, the Beavers have eight players with 10 or more points this season and every forward and defenseman on the roster with the exception of one has registered at least one point. Adam Brady and Aaron Miller lead BSU in overall goals with 11 and 10 respectively but in league play, both have nine tying them for second in the conference goal scoring race. Of those nine for Brady, seven have been on the power play which is tops in the WCHA.
"Was it expected, no, but I think we knew what we were capable of. We knew how skilled this group is," stated Brady, one of just three seniors on the Beaver roster this season. "Going beyond goal scoring and things like that, you just want to be at the top of the standings - that's all we are trying to do. I think deep down we knew what we had here at the beginning of the season, and we knew what we were capable of. We probably weren't expecting to be scoring at this rate but it's just a testament to our team. We have a lot of depth. We have four lines who can put pucks in the net and they also have their own role they play too. Then we have our defensemen chipping in quite a bit and that's what you need. You can't just have one or two guys, you have to have everyone chipping in and I think our depth is a key for us."
"It's crazy," explained Driscoll, a junior goaltender for BSU and league's second ranked netminder in goals against average and save percentage through 16 conference games (1.53 GAA/.938). "Our seniors have been outstanding, and our junior class and sophomore class have been playing big roles. Our freshmen; they have also come in with a lot of experience playing at the junior level so at the end of the day we have a lot of guys with experience and it shows. That type of experience has done nothing but help. Guys know what is expected of them, they have been in those situations before that have come up in games and they are prepared for them.
"I see it every day out on the ice in practice, every line can contribute, and every line can score goals," continued Driscoll. "Everyone has skill, and everyone can make plays. It's not just one line or one player."
That mindset; more than any other, has been Bemidji State's battle cry all season long. Team first- team always. It's true, all teams shoot for that gold standard but not everyone can, or will, find that Zen-like cohesiveness that Serratore and his squad have showcased at times this year. How else can you explain the fact that since November 8th, 2019 the Beavers are 11-2-1 against their WCHA opponents and have allowed just 24 goals (1.7 allowed per game) and have scored 57 (4.07 scored per game). By the way, to reinforce the balance theme, those 57 goals were scored by 17 different players.
"I think our blue-collar mindset is huge for us," remarked Brady. "We are a hard-working group and we are a tight knit group. We're playing for each other, the guy beside you and the guy across from you. We love the program and we really enjoy playing Beaver hockey. Our hard work and our overall team buy-in leads to that success. Every weekend is a new team and a new challenge. We are a group that tries to stay hungry and we go to the rink every day, work hard, and we want to win."
"You have to make sure that there is buy-in from everyone offensively and there is buy-in from everyone on defense," added Serratore. "We are no different from any other team in college hockey and you have to make sure you are good in those areas. We are trying to do this thing as a collective group. Offensively, you want to have a five-man offense this day in age on the rush; you're in-zone offense you want to have five men. It's the same thing defensively. You better have five men playing well defensively. You just have to have cohesiveness. Right now, it's put us in good shape, but will it keep us in that position? Time will tell."
Time- it can be exciting and dangerous in the same breath.
Heading into the home stretch, Serratore and his team find themselves entering a run of games that would set off alarms in any locker room across the college hockey landscape. From what he can remember, now in his 18th season as the Beavers bench boss, Serratore has never seen a stretch of upcoming games like the 12 he and his squad is about to face to close out the regular season. Starting with Michigan Tech this weekend (currently sixth in the WCHA standings), BSU then travels to Minnesota State (first place), plays Bowling Green at home (fourth), hits the road to Northern Michigan (third), plays Anchorage in Alaska before coming home to finish off their regular season campaign with none other than Minnesota State again. When you crunch the numbers, you realize that the combined record of the Beavers next six opponents is 82-46-10. No wonder BSU's only focus is on what's in front of them and not what has happened already. Being second in the conference on January 17 is one thing - being second on March 1, 2020 is another category completely and Serratore knows it.
"Honestly I don't remember a gauntlet like this; maybe there has been one, but I don't remember it," commented Serratore. "The bottom line though is that's what we are facing currently. Again, we understand the difficulty in our schedule, and we have a lot of work in front of us right now. That's what we are focused on. The biggest thing is not where we are after game 16 but rather where are we going to be after game 28 and I think we all realize and understand that. Our schedule, the last 12 games; it's a bear."
"I think our attitude is excitement," continued Brady. "This is when you get tested and this is when every game pretty much feels like a playoff game. These next six weeks; you have to perform if you want to be in a good position going into the playoffs. I think the main thing for us is how dialed in we have to be every day. We can't take any shifts off against these teams we are about to play. I do think we are excited for the challenge. These are the types of games you get up for. We are pumped up and can't wait to get started."
"We have some top dogs coming up in our schedule that's for sure," replied Driscoll. "It will be fun. It's always fun trying to be up to the challenge and we are looking forward to it. The points are already crucial from day one and down the final stretch everyone is battling and trying to get as many points as they can grab. We are excited for the challenge and we look forward to it. We are looking at it as playoff time, it's playoff hockey."
Despite what the calendar says it seems playoff hockey has come early, and it appears Bemidji State is ready.