BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The 2016-17 Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season champion Bemidji State University men’s ice hockey team (0-0-0; 0-0-0-0 WCHA) opens its 2017-18 season this weekend at Sanford Center. The Beavers host No. 5/9 University of Minnesota Duluth (1-1-0; 0-0-0-0 NCHC) Friday to kick off a non-conference series before heading to Duluth, Minn. and AMSOIL Arena for the rubber match, Saturday.
The Beavers return 20 players from a 2016-17 roster that went 22-16-3 overall and 20-6-2-2 in WCHA play en route to claiming possession of the MacNaughton Cup. Leading the way is CCM All-America West First Team goaltender Michael Bitzer. A year ago, Bitzer posted a 22-14-3 record in 39 appearances. In addition to owning the nation’s best goals against average (1.71), he ranked third in save percentage (.932) and backstopped a BSU penalty-kill unit that ranked among college hockey’s best all season (.880). Offensively, Gerry Fitzgerald returns as BSU’s biggest scoring threat. The senior shared the team’s lead with 13 goals, eight of which came on the power play, and 26 points last season. Fellow senior Kyle Bauman also posted 13 goals, while sophomore Zach Whitecloud posted a team-best 14 assists from the blueline.
Minnesota Duluth comes into the series after going 1-1-0 last weekend in its own IceBreaker. The Bulldogs defeated the University of Minnesota, 4-3, in overtime before dropping the championship to Michigan Tech, 4-3. UMD lost several key members of its line up following last season’s national championship game, but return a potent attack. New Jersey Devils’ draft pick Joey Anderson recorded 12 goals and 25 assists as a freshman last season and is back for his sophomore campaign. Sophomore Willie Raskob also headlines a defensive corps that features five freshman. Arguably the largest hole head coach Scott Sandelin has to fill is in the crease. After playing in 39 of 42 contests for the Bulldogs in 2016-17 and going 27-5-5 with a .920 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average, Hunter Miska moved on. UMD will attempt to fill the void with sophomores Hunter Shepard and Nick Deery, who have split time in the net this season.
One of the Beavers’ most consistent Division I opponents, BSU has clashed with Minnesota Duluth in 16 of 17 seasons since making the jump to NCAA Division I (1999-2000). Although UMD holds a 22-15-2 edge in the all-time series, BSU is 4-1-1 in the six meetings between the teams and is 12-8-2 since 2005-06. The teams first met in Duluth Feb. 8, 1947--in just the 13th game of the BSU program’s existence. The Bulldogs prevailed, 4-3, and would go on the win the next 10 meetings. Dec. 2, 2002, Bemidji State put an end to the Bulldogs’ 54-year stronghold in the series with a 3-2 victory at the DECC. BSU is 7-16-1 all-time when playing on the Bulldogs’ home ice, while it is 5-6-1 on home ice and is 1-2-1 versus the Bulldogs at Sanford Center.
Bemidji State notables:
• Bemidji State opens its 62nd season of hockey Oct. 13-14 when it faces No. 5 Minnesota Duluth in a non-conference home-and-home series. The Beavers and Bulldogs will meet Friday at Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. before changing venues to AMSOIL Arena in Duluth, Minn. Saturday.
• BSU head coach Tom Serratore is in his 17th season as head coach at his Alma Mater (’87). He is 266-256-70 (.510).
• The Beavers return 20 skaters to the roster form their 2016-17 MacNaughton Cup championship team, which includes All-American goaltender Michael Bitzer and five of it top eight scoring threats form a year ago.
• Bitzer finished his junior campaign with a 22-14-3 overall record with a 1.71 goals against average and .932 save percentage.
• Bitzer enters the season with 2,346 saves. He is 33 stops from Dan Bakala (2008-12) and fourth place (2,379) on BSU’s all-time saves list.
• Bitzer’s 22nd victory during the first round of the 2017 WCHA Playoffs made him the first Beaver to gain 22 wins in a season since Steve O’Shea (22-12-1) in 1986-87.
• At 49-41-11 in his BSU career, Bitzer is eighth at BSU all time and in sole possession of the BSU Division I-era victories lead.
• Gerry Fitzgerald returns as BSU’s most prolific scorer. During his first three seasons in the Green and White he has amassed 34 goals and 36 assists for 70 points in 116 games. No BSU’s top player on the power play this season, recorded other current BSU player has more goals, assists or points. In addition, his 19 career power-play goals is tops on the 2017-18 BSU roster.
• Gerry Fitzgerald was named to the all-WCHA Third Team to cap the 2016-17 season. As a junior he ranked second on the team with 26 points (13g-13a), which his 13 goals matched Kyle Bauman for the team’s lead. He also led the team with 15 points on the power-play (8g-7a) , which includes a team-high eight goals on the man advantage.
• Kyle Bauman finished his junior season with 23 points (13g-10), which stood as a career-best in points and goals.
• Zach Whitecloud returns to the BSU blue line for his second season. Last year he led all BSU defenders and all BSU rookies with 17 points (3g-14a), while he was tied for 16th among all WCHA defenders in scoring.
• With 15 (2g-13a) of his 17 points coming on the power-play, Whitecloud tied for second on the team and fourth in the WCHA (1g-10a).
• The BSU penalty-kill unit finished 2016-17 third in the nation (139-for-158 (.880), while it was 98-of-107 (.917) in league play to pace the WCHA.
• BSU finished 2016-17 31-for-167 (.186).
• BSU led the country in goals allowed (1.87), while it allowed a meager 1.57 in WCHA play. The Beavers allowed more than three goals just 10 times last season. All 10 resulted in losses.
With BSU’s 13-8-1 home record in 2016-17, the Beavers posted their best single-season win total since the team went 13-3-1 at The Glas in 1996-97.
• The Beavers are 15-22-2 all-time versus Minnesota Duluth, which includes a 5-6-1 mark versus the Bulldogs in Bemidji, Minn. Last season the Beavers tied the then-top-ranked Bulldogs 1-1 and won in the 3-on-3 exhibition in Duluth, Minn., Dec. 16 before dropping the non-conference finale in Bemidji the following night, 2-1.
• Kyle Bauman leads all current BSU players with three points (2g-1a) in five career games versus UMD, while Gerry Fitzgerald has three points on a goal and two assists.
• Bitzer is 3-1–1 all-time versus UMD with a 1.18 goals against average and a .959 save percentage and a shutout.
• In 2016-17, BSU was 3-4-1 versus teams ranked among the top 15.
• The Beavers, who are 1,069-597-123 all-time, rank second only to Boston College in all-time wining percentage (.632).
• Bemidji State is captained by seniors Jordan Heller and Kyle Bauman in 2016-17 with fellow senior Gerry Fitzgerald and junior Dillon Eichstadt serving as alternate captains.