By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
During the 2014-15 season, the Minnesota Gophers won the WCHA regular season title with 22 wins in 28 tries. That season the Gophers finished the year with 14 players on their roster who scored 10 or more points and every single skater on the team finished with at least one point. In 2015-16, it was the Badgers' turn. During its run of 24 league wins, UW finished with 14 players on the team scoring 10 or more points. Every player but two on their roster registered a point that season. Last year Bucky did it again, notching 22 wins in 28 WCHA games thanks in large part to a squad that posted 15 separate players on the roster with 10 or more points. In addition….every player with the exception of the back-up goalie appeared on the scoresheet at least once. What is the point to this? Balance is hard to find, but when you find it, success usually follows.
Last season, Bemidji State struggled to find that balance. Offensively, the Beavers scored just 48 goals and surrendered 80 during league play. The lop-sided numbers were one of the reasons why BSU was only able to muster seven wins against league opponents and 12 wins overall. It wasn't so much that there was a lack of high-end talent; the Beavers just needed more depth. Offensively, BSU scored more than three goals in a game just four times and averaged less than two goals per contest. Just seven players on their roster hit the 10-point mark and only one scored more than 10 goals.
It was clear to head coach Jim Scanlan that in order for Bemidji State to once again be a contender in the WCHA, some adjustments were needed.
Hockey is complex and satisfying the hockey gods often requires a variety of tweaks and adjustments- not just one. Scanlan knew that, first and foremost, the Beavers needed depth. Already with a core of returning letter winners, the fourth-year head coach complemented the returning talent with nine freshmen, including several who brought with them an impressive résumé of grit and grind- and plenty of skill. Newcomers like Paige Beebe, who scored 46 points as a high school senior for the Blaine Bengals. Or, Clair DeGeorge, who skated into Bemidji fresh off a high school career filled with national championships as a member of Shattuck St. Mary's. In addition to offense, Scanlan also struck gold on the defensive side of the puck as well, as the list of fabulous freshmen also included players like Mak Langei, Tina Kampa and goaltenders Kerigan Dowhy and Lauren Bench.
Next Scanlan needed time; time for his incoming players to get the feel of life in the WCHA. He needed time for the upperclassmen to show the rookies the ropes. He needed time for everyone to gel and hit their stride.
Lastly, Scanlan and his staff needed trust- trust that the players in the locker room would buy into the system and not only find their role, but play their role.
As the season kicked off, despite the results on paper, Scanlan and his senior leaders quickly started to see something developing in front of their eyes that they had talked about months before. Despite starting the season 1-7-1, little glimpses of progress were starting to appear. They were beginning to see depth. They were starting to witness the benefit of experience. Trust was there. Before they knew it everything began to change. The goals were back. The wins were back. The Beavers were back.
Since losing to Minnesota Duluth on October 27th, Bemidji State has become one of the most consistent teams in the country and have gone 10-4-1 since – including a program-record six-game winning streak that began with a 4-2 victory at Ridder Arena over a ranked Gophers team Dec. 2. Over their last 15 games, BSU has dismantled their opponents thanks to a balanced offensive attack that has been second to none. Along with outscoring their opponents 44-28, 17 different players have scored at least one point during that stretch. Six different players have scored at least 10 points over their last 15 games.
"Every year is different. I liked the way this team has played right from the start," remarked Scanlan. "You certainly hope when you recruit those players that they are going to be able to come in and contribute. Obviously the credit belongs to those players. They come in and work hard. I give our leadership group a tremendous amount of credit establishing the culture we do have. I'm a big believer in how it has to be all about the team and you need to put the team's needs in front of your own. It's a cliché, but that's not always easy to do. They are all good players and everyone wants to play, but when you get to a program, everyone is a good player. It comes down to how well you can accept your role and whether or not you can handle that. To this group's credit, they have done a tremendous job with that."
"I think this is our best recruiting class that I've seen, and is it keeps rolling it seems like we keep getting better. It might have started a little slow for us but now we are back on track and we are playing the kind of hockey we all wanted to be playing and knew we were capable of," added senior Emma Terres, who is second on the team in scoring with 15 points. "I think the coaching staff does a really good job putting the lines together and emphasizing everyone's strengths. We're not just relying on one person. We have four lines and everyone can score and that's been a huge reason for our success. We were just talking about it in the locker room the other day; everyone is scoring. It's not just one person or one line. Everyone is helping us be successful."
Players like sophomore Haley Mack, who leads the Beavers in scoring and has registered 13 of her season's 17 points since late October. Tied for 12th in the WCHA in scoring, Mack tallied 13 points all of last year. Or players like Emily Bergland, who skated into this season as Bemidji State's top returner scorer. After registering just four points though her first 11 games, the Thief River Falls, Minn. native has burned opponents with six goals and four assists over her last 13 games. And don't forget about the freshmen. Newcomers DeGeorge and Langei both rank in the top 10 in the league in rookie scoring. Langei was recently named WCHA Rookie of the Month for the month of December.
"We are running four lines which is huge for us. As the season goes along and starts to get long, being able to do that definitely helps us and plays to our advantage. There are girls up and down the line-up who can take your spot, but we are all rooting for each other. There is no tension; everyone just wants the team to get better," mentioned Bergland. "It doesn't even seem like there are upperclassmen and lowerclassmen. We are all out there working hard and pushing one another; the freshmen especially. They are such a skilled group and have been pushing everyone really hard and the older girls respect that. As an upperclassman, it's great to see the freshman girls out there and going well. It's all positive. To see success across all lines, with all of the defensemen and the three goalies, it's great to see that we are all on the same page and working towards one common goal."
Yes, you got that right….three goalies. The Beavers surge hasn't just been dominated by offense. On the other side of the ice, BSU has been just as consistent and currently ranks third in the league in team defense, allowing an average of 2.29 goals per game. Led by a trio (yes trio) of netminders, Scanlan has found himself with multiple options between the pipes as well. In addition to senior Erin Deters, freshmen Lauren Bench and Kerigan Dowhy have also been inserted into the line-up this season and the results have been impressive. Both Deters and Bench have each played in 12 games while Dowhy has played in three. All three goalies have compiled a goals-against average of less than 2.50, and Deters and Bench have combined for five shutouts.
"All three of them are unbelievable. It's been fun to sit back and watch them battle it out," mentioned defenseman Alexis Joyce, who currently ranks eighth in the conference in scoring among defensemen. "The competition level is unreal and that only helps the team. Honestly that can be said about the entire team. Everyone on our roster can play and that competition pushes everyone to be their best."
"All three of them have played well. Erin was really good against St. Cloud State, shutting them out twice (November 10th-11th) and every time Kerigan has gotten a chance she has played extremely well. Since the Minnesota series Lauren has also really established herself in net," replied Scanlan. "Early on, our schedule was pretty daunting as far as the teams we played. I liked how we were playing but the results didn't necessarily reflect that; I liked how we were competing. The message was always that it's a process and you need to embrace that. You need to keep doing what you are doing in terms of the work ethic you put in and you hope the wins start coming. Our goaltending has solidified itself a little more and we are starting to get some scoring. We are playing pretty well in the defensive zone and with that, we have started to transition pretty well and create offense from that."
Another factor that has played into the Beavers climb to fourth place in the conference has been their special teams play which has been, well, special. Thanks in large part to the systems Assistant Coaches Amber Fryklund (penalty kill) and Shane Veenker (power play) have developed, this season Bemidji State has been deadly on the power play, operating at a success rate of 21 percent, which ranks them second in the conference. On the other side of the ice, BSU's commitment to laying everything on the line has translated into amazing success during those times when Scanlan and his crew finds themselves shorthanded. Bemidji State's penalty kill ranks fourth in the league at 85 percent, but lately, they have been even better than that. When looking at their last 10 wins, BSU's opponents have gone 1-for-28 on the power play in those games. Throw in the fact that Bemidji State has also scored three shorthanded goals (all by Haley Mack) and you quickly figure out why the Beavers also rank second in the conference in special teams play.
The difference this year? Across the board, the Beavers talk about the intangibles that make programs successful and how this year their commitment to those "little things" have defined this squad more than anything else. Simple, yet painful things like blocking shots, winning one-on-one battles in front of the net and giving up your body for the team and your teammate. It's an attitude that was embraced right from the very beginning inside of the locker room and on the practice rink.
"Everyone on the team understands that no one is guaranteed ice time and no one is guaranteed to be in the line-up every night. Everyone understands that in every single practice everyone needs to come and bust their butts to force coach not to take you out," commented Joyce. "Our practices aren't even comparable to years past because of the energy on the ice and how hard everyone is pushing one another. You don't take off drills, everyone goes 110 percent every day because you can't take a day off. That competitive nature bleeds into the games and I think you can see the results."
"We always talk about every single day getting better, that's our goal. We started slow earlier in the year but every single game we were getting better," continued Terres. "Now with this recent success; it's all about how can we keep getting better even though things are going well right now. It's the little things that we are going to have to keep getting better at. It's about working hard in practice and improving every day. I think if we do that, things will take care of themselves."
Currently with 20 points (6-7-1-1 in the WCHA; 11-11-2 overall) heading into their final 10 games of the regular season, the Beavers find themselves 11 points behind third-place Ohio State who, coincidentally, they will face the last weekend of the season. It's a difficult stretch of games that also includes top-ranked Wisconsin. Still, the one thing that Scanlan has learned while coaching this team is that who they are playing doesn't matter. When he walks into the locker room he can see it in his player's eyes. The 2017-18 Beavers just want to compete. Whether it's in practice or in a game, his squad is hungry and they want to get better. They have gotten a taste of success and want more.
"Every team in this league is dangerous. It's always a battle no matter who you play. As far as our group, I think we can continue to get better. We only have 10 games left in the regular season, but every time we step on the ice it's an opportunity to get better. We want to be playing at our best at the end of the year," remarked Scanlan. "That's been the focus for this team, let's take advantage of that time and let's keep pushing it. When you finally get to that point anything can happen. As a coach, I just know that if we keep doing that, things are going to work out. We all know what hockey is like, it can be pretty cruel at times, but you at least want to be playing your best hockey and if we are, that's all I can ask for. If we keep playing hard and getting better we are going to be a handful for anyone we play."
The Beavers jump back onto the ice this weekend at Minnesota Duluth this Friday and Saturday in a crucial WCHA series, as BSU is three points ahead of the Bulldogs in the league standings. Saturday's contest will be televised live on FOX Sports North PLUS.