Every weekday from June 12-27, we will be looking back at the "Top Shelf Moments" from the 2016-17 WCHA Men's League season. Up next on our countdown is…
Moment #3: Bemidji State Hoists the Cup
Dating back 104 years to its original purchase in 1913, handcrafted of pure silver, standing three-feet high, and weighing more than 40 pounds, the MacNaughton Cup is the shining symbol of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and its distinguished tradition as a premier collegiate hockey conference since the league's founding in 1951.
Now, for the first time since the hometown Beavers joined the WCHA for the 2010-11 season, the MacNaughton Cup will spend the next 12 months in Bemidji, Minn.
The fabled trophy has a new home thanks to Bemidji State's stellar, nearly wire-to-wire effort to win the 2016-17 WCHA regular season championship. The Beavers enjoyed a 20-win, 64-point campaign, capturing the 22nd regular season conference crown in program history (and sixth in BSU's Division I era, following five College Hockey America titles). All six of those D-I banners have been raised under bench boss Tom Serratore, who concluded his 16th season at the helm of his alma mater by earning WCHA Coach of the Year honors.
Bemidji State swept preseason favorite Bowling Green in its opening weekend of WCHA play (Oct. 6-7), won its first eight league games and was undefeated in its first 13 contests (12-0-1). By season's end – aside from a bye week on the opening weekend of WCHA play (a single series was played Oct. 1-2) – the Beavers held at least a share of first place at the conclusion of every WCHA weekend in which it competed.
BSU soared to a 20-6-2-2 WCHA mark on the strength of the league's stingiest defense and clutch scoring. Michael Bitzer solidified his place among the nation's elite with an exceptional junior season, one of the best ever by a league goaltender. The Moorhead, Minn. native and WCHA Player of the Year set the all-time WCHA record with a sparkling 1.40 goals-against average in his 27 league games, while also pacing the circuit with a .940 save percentage (second in league history), 20 wins (tied for seventh), a .778 winning percentage, five shutouts (tied for third) and 1625:40 in net. As a team, Bemidji State yielded 1.57 goals per WCHA game (44 total in 28 contests).
Offensively, the Beavers relied on a balanced and opportunistic attack, one that led the WCHA by converting on 21.7 percent of its power-play chances in league play. After recording 10 goals and 28 points in his first three collegiate seasons, All-WCHA Second Team forward Phillip Marinaccio scored 11 times as a senior and led Bemidji State with 29 points on the season (he had seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points in 28 WCHA contests). Gerry Fitzgerald earned third-team All-WCHA accolades as a junior after ranking seventh with 12 goals in league play; his WCHA-best eight power-play strikes tied for 17th nationally. Fellow junior Kyle Bauman was a 10-goal scorer (13 overall, including 11 in league play), while senior Brendan Harms tallied 15 (5g-10a) of his 21 points (8g-13a) in WCHA contests.
In its quest to defend the MacNaughton Cup, Bemidji State is slated to return 13 players who skated in at least 30 games and four who played in all 41 contests. That group includes WCHA All-Rookie Team selection Zach Whitecloud, a stout defenseman and special teams standout who led all WCHA skaters with 11 power-play assists in conference action.
Indeed, following BSU's winningest season since 2009-10, the Beavers believe the pieces are in place to keep the MacNaughton Cup in its new, Northern Minnesota lakeside home.
"Top Shelf Moments" from the 2016-17 WCHA Season
12: Everybody Loves a Winner
11: Hats Off
10: Celebrating the 50th in Style
9: 20 x 4
8: The Next Level
7: Dufour's Hat Trick Heroics
6: Kapelmaster Stands Tall
5: All-Americans, On and Off the Ice
4: A CLASS Act