BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The Bemidji State University men’s ice hockey team (1-0-1; 0-0-0-0 WCHA) continues non-conference play this weekend as it welcomes long-time rival the United State Air Force Academy (3-0-1; 0-0-0 Atlantic Hockey) to Sanford Center for a two-game series. The teams, who have a storied history as members of the College Hockey America Conference, have not met since the 2009-10 season. With brothers Tom and Frank Serratore at the coaching helm of their respective teams, and Tom’s son Matt Serratore on the Falcons’ roster, while former Bemidji High School teammates Dillon Eichstadt and Jordan Heller on the BSU bench, there will be no shortage of anticipated connections and reunions this weekend.
The Beavers opened their 2017-18 season last weekend, getting a dose of exactly what they expected. Third-Team All-WCHA forward, senior Gerry Fitzgerald led the team with three points (1g-2a), which included his team-leading 20th career power-play goal, while sophomore defender Zach Whitecloud pitched in a pair of assists on the power play. CCM All-America West First Team goaltender Michael Bitzer allowed just two goals in the opening weekend, which included his 17th career shutout--a new WCHA record. 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 shared the team’s lead with 13 goals, eight of which came on the power play, and 26 points. Zach Whitecloud posted a team-best 14 assists from the blueline.
Air Force comes to Bemidji, Minn., with a 3-0-1 record and is on the fringe of the USAToday/USA Hockey Top 15 poll. Junior forward Matt Koch leads the Falcons in scoring with four points (2g-2a), while Evan Giesler has a team-best four assists and Erik Baskin leads the team with three goals. Billy Christopoulos has been in net for all four of the Falcons’ contests and has a 3-0-1 record with a 1.96 goals against average, a .936 save percentage and has backstopped a penalty-kill unit that is clicking at 92-percent (23-of-25). Last season the Falcons narrowly missed the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title (27-10-5; 20-6-3) but won the conference tournament and made a run to the NCAA’s final eight teams.
Bemidji State and Air Force began their rivalry in 1997 while BSU was still a member of NCAA Division II. The Falcons captured both games of the first series between the schools, winning 6-3 and 5-3 (12/5-6/97), but from there the series has been tilted heavily in favor of BSU. BSU leads the all-time series with Air Force 25-8-2, but since the Beavers joined Division I in 1999 the margin is a more-impressive 23-6-2, which includes a 14-1-2 advantage when hosting the Falcons.
Bemidji State notables:
• Bemidji State opened its 61st season of hockey winning a non-conference home-and-home series versus No. 5/9 Minnesota Duluth. The Beavers took the season-opener 5-2 in Bemidji Friday before battling the Bulldogs to a scoreless, double-overtime draw, which the Beavers won in an exhibition shoot out.
• BSU head coach Tom Serratore is in his 17th season as head coach at his Alma Mater (’87). He is 267-256-71 (.510).
• The series puts Serratore against his older brother Frank, head coach of Air Force, who is also a Bemidji State graduate. The younger Serratore has the upper hand with a 20-3-1 edge in head-to-head match ups.
• Michael Bitzer’s victory Friday was the 50th of his career. He currently sits ninth on BSU’s all-time wins list and is atop BSU’s NCAA Division I era wins list at 50-41-12.
• The Moorhead, Minn. native set the WCHA record with his program record 17th career shutout, a career-best 45-save effort over 65 minutes Oct. 14 at Minnesota Duluth. Bitzer surpasses the 16 clean sheets accumulated by Colorado College’s Jeff Sanger between 1998-2002 and Wisconsin’s Brian Elliott from 2003-07.
• With 72 saves in the series, Bitzer now has with 2,418 saves to surpass Dan Bakala (2008-12) and move into fourth place (2,379) on BSU’s all-time saves list. He is just 239 behind third place (2,657) and Beaver great Chuck Scanlon (1971-75).
• Gerry Fitzgerald returns as BSU’s most prolific scorer in 2017-18. During his first three seasons in the Green and White he amassed 34 goals and 36 assists for 70 points in 116 games. He backed that up in the first weekend of play this season with a team-best three points on a goal and an assist.
• No current BSU player has had a bigger impact on the power play than Gerry Fitzgerald. With a power-play goal Friday, he now has 20 career power-play goals.
• Last year Zach Whitecloud led all BSU defenders and all BSU rookies with 17 points (3g-14a), while he was tied for 16th among all WCHA blueliners in scoring. He added two assists in BSU’s opening weekend, both coming on the power play.
• With 15 (2g-13a) of his 17 points in 2016-17 coming on the power-play, Whitecloud has picked up right where he left off and is tied with Gerry Fitzgerald (1g-1a) for the BSU power-play scoring lead.
•The BSU penalty-kill unit was perfect during its first weekend of play. BSU, backed by Bitzer, stopped all eight power-play chances Minnesota Duluth had. The Beavers 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.
• After a 2-for-5 power-play performance on opening night, BSU was 0-for-3 Saturday to cap the weekend at 2-for-8 (.250) on the man advantage.
• BSU led the country in goals allowed (1.87) in 2016-17, 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 already 1-0-0 at home in 2017-18.
• With 20 players back for 2017-18, BSU also brings eight new players into the fold with six seeing time in the opening series. Adam Brady, a sophomore who made his Beavers’ debut headlines the group. The Delhi, Ontario native posted a power-play goal Friday, while Brendan Harris, a freshman from Henderson, Nev., recorded a goal on three shots. In addition, Superior, Wis. native, Aaron Miller posted an assist in the season opener.
• Bemidji State rekindles a rivalry with Air Force Oct. 20-21. Dating back to 1997, the original members of College Hockey America have met on 35 previous occasions with BSU owning a 25-8-2 all-time advantage in the series, which includes a 14-1-2 mark in games played in Bemidji. The Beavers and Falcons have not met since 2009-10.
• The Falcons are 20th in the USCHO.com National poll and are receiving votes in the USA Hockey/USAToday Poll.
• The Beavers, who are 1,070-597-124 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.
• Heller and Eichstadt were high school teammates of Air Force forward and Bemidji, Min. native Matt Serratore.