Michigan’s hockey team faces off against Bemidji State in their first-round NCAA tournament matchup on Saturday. Here’s what you need to know about the BSU Beavers heading into this weekend:
First of all, where the hell is Bemidji State?
Jeff Arnold at AnnArbor.com has us covered here with an article of ten things to know about Bemidji. No, you did not fail 4th-grade geography: Bemidji is not, in fact, a state, but is actually a town of a little more than 13,000 people located four hours north of Minneapolis and two hours northeast of Fargo, North Dakota. Average annual snowfall: 41 inches. And I thought I chose a school with terrible winters. Bemidji considers itself the home of Paul Bunyan, a man who didn’t exist, and they constructed an 18-foot statue of him in 1937. I’m going to go ahead and say playing hockey is probably the most interesting thing to do in Bemidji.
Enough with the history lesson. How good is Bemidji State?
I’m glad you asked. Bemidji State finished 10th (one spot ahead of Michigan) in the final USCHO poll, while finishing eighth in the pairwise rankings, the main rankings used to determine NCAA bids and seeds and something about which I have little to no understanding.
The Beavers earned their way into the NCAA tournament by tearing through the CHA in the regular season, finishing 14-3-1 in conference play and 23-9-4 overall. That conference record is impressive, but should be taken with a huge grain of salt: the CHA is a four-team league that is disbanding after this season, and no other team in the conference finished within five games of .500 this year. Despite a cupcake league, Bemidji State did not earn an automatic bid, losing to last-place Niagara in the first round of the CHA tournament (which doubled as the semifinal — this is a sign your league will not exist soon) before finishing with a tie against Robert Morris in the third-place game, one I’m sure Bemidji State wasn’t particularly motivated for considering they had an NCAA bid locked up by that time.
Because of the weakness of the CHA (the other three teams finished a combined 16-27-6 in non-conference play), it’s hard to tell a lot about BSU by looking at their overall numbers. Separate out their conference games from their non-conference slate, however, and you begin to see some major flaws for the Beavers (NOTE: non-conference games include the CHA tournament, since those games aren’t counted as conference games in the online stats, and I wasn’t about to spend too much time separating out two games):
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Bemidji State’s stats drop across the board when they’re not beating up on the dregs of the CHA. Looking closer at their non-conference schedule, you see a team that can beat — or lose to — any team in the country. The Beavers took down #2 Miami at a neutral site game in November, but have some ugly losses as well. The night after they beat Miami, they lost to Ohio State, who finished eighth in the CCHA, and in December they were swept by Minnesota State, who finished the season tied for eighth in the WCHA.
Players to watch:
Junior forward Matt Read is the team’s leading scorer, putting up a 19-21-40 stat line — his 1.11 points per game was good for 40th in the country, seven spots ahead of Wolverine leading scorer Carl Hagelin. The Beavers have three other players who broke the 30-point mark: freshman forward Jordan George (13-21-34), sophomore defenseman Brad Hunt (7-26-33), and junior forward Ian Lowe, whose 20 goals (along with ten assists) led the Beavers. From there, scoring drops off: the next-highest scorer has 24 points, and BSU has just ten players with ten or more points. For comparison, Michigan has 15.
The Beavers have just one player who has been drafted by the NHL, senior defenseman Chris Peluso (1-8-9), who was taken in the seventh round in 2004 by Pittsburgh. Michigan, in contrast, has 12 players whose rights are owned by an NHL team — in terms of pure talent, there’s not really any comparison between these two teams.
In goal, sophomore Dan Bakala compiled a 19-7-3 record in 30 starts, posting a .919 save percentage (good for 11th in the country) and a 2.27 goals against average (also 11th). Michigan will need to continue to play well in front of Shawn Hunwick and control puck possession, as goals may be hard to come by if Bakala is on his game.
I don’t claim to be an expert on college hockey, and single-elimination hockey tournaments are about as fluky as they come, but this looks to me like a game that Michigan should win. Bemidji State has bolstered their resume by beating up on a series of cupcakes, but besides their home victory over Miami and a November win over Northern Michigan the Beavers don’t have much in the way of quality wins. Michigan enters the tournament on a hot streak after playing a season against much tougher competition, and are deeper at every position except goaltender, while BSU is coming of a winless performance in the CHA tournament. As with any hockey game, the battle could very well come down to the performance of the goalies, but if Michigan can continue to play stellar defense in front of Hunwick while controlling puck possession, they should win this game.