BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The Bemidji State University men’s ice hockey team returns to the Sanford Center for the biggest weekend series in the building’s history. The marquee matchup pits league-leader Bemidji State (16-11-3; 16-4-2-2 WCHA) versus a hard-charging Michigan Tech (16-9-7; 13-3-6-3 WCHA) team that is just four points back in second place in the WCHA standings. With six points on the line this weekend and just three weeks remaining in the 2016-17 regular season, this weekend’s series will almost certainly propel either the Beavers or Huskies to a league title, possession of the MacNaughton Cup and the right to host the newly reformatted WCHA playoffs throughout.
The Beavers open the series looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. Led by senior Phillip Marinaccio, BSU is averaging 2.23 goals per game this season, however, they have scored more than two goals just one time in the 10 games since Dec. 16. Marinaccio has already established career bests with nine goals, 13 assists and 22 points. Recently, junior forwards Gerry and Leo Fitzgerald have had the hot scoring hands. Gerry has five points (2g-3a) in BSU’s last six games, while Leo has four assists in the Beavers’ last four outings. Junior goaltender Michael Bitzer has shouldered the bulk of the duties between the pipes, backstopping a defense allowing just 1.87 goals per game to lead the nation. He is 16-10-3 in 29 appearances and opens the series tied for second in the country in wins (16) and shutouts (4), and is second in goals against average (1.65), while he is seventh in save percentage (.932). In addition, he has also been the last line of defense on a BSU penalty-kill unit that leads the country stopping 106-of-119 (.891) opponent power plays.
Michigan Tech skates into Sanford Center unbeaten in regulation in its last seven games (3-0-4), pulling down the No. 20 spot in the national polls. The Huskies have averaged over 3.50 goals per game during their recent seven-game stretch, including three straight games with four or more. Jake Lucchini and Matt Roy currently lead the team offensively with 18 points apiece. Lucchini has a team-high 10 goals and Roy’s 13 assists lead the team. Freshman Angus Redmond took over MTU’s goaltending duties Oct. 28 and has gone 15-4-5 since. He leads the WCHA in goals against average (1.61) and is third in save percentage at .927.
Bemidji State notables:
• Bemidji State went 0-2-0 in the North Star College Cup, Jan. 27-28, dropping its semifinal to St. Cloud State, 2-1, Friday before 4-0 loss to (6) Minnesota Saturday. The Beavers are 16-11-3 overall with a a 16-4-2-2 mark in league play.
• BSU head coach Tom Serratore is in his 16th season as head coach at his Alma Mater (’87). He is 260-251-70 (.510).
• Michael Bitzer allowed five goals on the weekend. He moved to 16-10-3 on the season. Among all NCAA Division I goaltenders, he is tied for second in wins (16) and shutouts (4),and is second in GAA (1.65), while he is seventh in save percentage (.932).
• Bitzer has played 1,743:28 of the Beavers’ 1,818:42 this year--that is 95.9 percent of the team’s season. Bitzer has played in all but one game this season and leads the country in minutes played.
• Following a 19-save performance Friday, Bitzer moved past Jack Horner (1974-78) for ninth place (2,062) on BSU’s all-time saves list. The junior now has 2,097 saves. He is 18 stops from Robin Cook (1992-96) and eighth place (2,115).
• At 43-37-11 in his BSU career, Bitzer is one victory from a tie with Dan Bakala (2008-12) for 10th on BSU’s career wins list.
• Through Nov. 19 and 14 games, BSU averaged 2.93 goals per game and posted an 11-2-1 record. In the 16 games since, the Beavers have averaged 1.61 goals per game and have scored more than two goals three times. BSU is 5-9-2 during that stretch.
• Zach Whitecloud netted the second goal of his freshman season Friday. It marked his first even-strength point of the season. He is fifth on the team with nine points on the man advantage (1g-8a). The freshman leads all BSU rookies with 10 points.
• With an assist Friday, Leo Fitzgerald has recorded a point in three of the Beavers’ last four games (4a).
• Despite being held without a point Jan. 27-28, Gerry Fitzgerald has been one of the hottest BSU players recently. He has five points (2g-3a) in BSU’s last six contests.
• Gerry Fitzgerald is second on the team with eight goals. BSU is 6-1-0 when he scores this season.
• Phillip Marinaccio has had a breakout season in 2016-17. The senior leads the team with 22 points (9g-13a). Not only is his point total a career-high, he has doubled his career goal total (17). He had 29 points in his first three season at BSU (8g-21a).
• The BSU penalty-kill unit was 7-for-9 Jan. 27-28 to move to 106-for-119 (.891) overall. The BSU unit leads the nation.
• The Beavers were 0-for-9 on the power play Jan. 27-28, which included an 0-for-6 afternoon versus Minnesota. BSU is now 24-for-127 (.189) overall to rank 22nd in the nation, while the team is 20-for-93 (.215) in league play to lead in the WCHA.
• BSU is without a power-play goal in its last three games and is 3-for-23 (.130) since the first of the year.
• Brendan Harms and Dillon Eichstadt returned to the BSU line up Friday after extended absences due to injury. Harms, who is fifth on the team in scoring with 16 points (7g-9a), missed six games with an upper body injury, while Eichstadt had been out since sustaining a lower body injury Nov. 12.
• BSU continues to lead the country in goals allowed (1.87). The Beavers have allowed more than two goals eight times this season. All eight have resulted in losses.
• The first-place Beavers became the first WCHA team to clinch home ice last Friday when MSU earned a 4-2 win at LSSU. BSU (52) holds a four-point edge over second place MTU (48) with a head-to-head match up this weekend at Sanford Center.
• BSU opens its WCHA series with Michigan Tech, this weekend, trailing the Huskies 7-11-4 all-time. BSU and MTU split Dec. 2-3 in Houghton, with BSU claiming a 3-1 win in the opener before MTU took the finale 2-1.
• The Beavers are 5-5-0 when hosting the Huskies which includes a 3-0 victory over MTU Feb. 19, 2016 at Sanford Center.
• Brendan Harms leads all current BSU players in scoring versus the Huskies. In 10 career appearances, the senior has eight points (4g-4a), which includes a pair of power-play goals and a game-winning goal in BSU’s last win over MTU at home (2/19/16).
• Kyle Bauman has also experienced significant success versus MTU, netting five points (1g-4a) in eight games versus the Huskies. Bauman accounted for BSU’s game-winning goal in Houghton, Dec. 2.
• Despite being 2-5-0 versus the Huskies during his career, Michael Bitzer has a career .922 save percentage versus MTU which includes a 3-0 shutout, Feb. 19, 2016.
• Bemidji State returns to Bemidji and Sanford Center this weekend, where it is 8-4-1 this season and has averaged 2.54 goals per game and allowed just 1.85.
• The difference between BSU’s home and road play this season is its special teams success. At home, the Beavers are 12-for-55 (.218) on the man advantage while they are 45-for-49 (.918) on the penalty kill. In contrast, the Beavers are 12-for-63 (.190) on the power-play and its penalty kill is 54-for-61 (.885) on the road.