2022 Bemidji State vs Minnesota State - Men's

CCHA Championship Preview: Minnesota State Vs. Bemidji

CCHA Championship Preview: Minnesota State Vs. Bemidji

It all comes down to this, an insurgent Bemidji State goes up against the behemoth Minnesota State-Mankato for the CCHA's Mason Cup.

Mar 15, 2022 by Tim Rappleye
CCHA Championship Preview: Minnesota State Vs. Bemidji

After a season of more lows than highs, a season in which coach Tom Serratore saw his Bemidji State Beavers allow more goals than they scored, the veteran coach was finally in a position to relax Saturday night in Houghton. Serratore was enjoying the CCHA’s equivalent of a fireside chat after upsetting No. 2 seed Michigan Tech. The veteran coach was now front and center in a league press conference—his team sitting in the catbird seat, guaranteed a berth in the CCHA championship game while his opponents were still playing a timezone away in Mankato. Entering the night sub-500 was now a distant memory. His Beavers were on the precipice of making the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. 

“We’ve been up and down this year, we probably didn’t play to our potential,” said the forthright Serratore. 

“But the guys are finding their groove, playing good hockey. Now we’ve got to let it play out.”

In a surprise to no one, his Mason Cup opponent turned out to be national number one Minnesota State, the powerhouse who overwhelmed Northern Michigan 8-1 as the Bemidji presser was wrapping up. 

“To be honest, I don’t know that there’d be any team in the country that could come in here and beat them,” said the beleaguered Wildcats coach Grant Potulny. 

“Have to tip your cap.”

Saturday’s semifinal was a frightening show of force by the nation’s top team: territorial dominance, secondary scoring in which 15 different players inked up the scoresheet, primary scoring in which Nathan Smith and Julian Napravnik raced to the top of the league scoring charts with identical 18-30-48 marks, and clutch goaltending from a first team All-American that some believe is underrated.

“I think Dryden’s McKay is the best player in college hockey,” said Potulny, unprompted. 

“I don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves.”

Bemidji boss Serratore doesn’t mince words about the Herculean task before his Beavers. 

“They have probably the best goalie in the country,” said Serratore, “they might have the most depth in the country as well. We’re just trying to survive and advance.” 

And advance they have, winning three straight games to climb from CCHA quarters, to semis, to the Mason Cup championship game. This from a Beaver team that hit rock bottom in late February, four games under .500, having lost eight of nine. Two weeks later, the Beavers found themselves facing elimination in the quarterfinals, down a game to Bowling Green, when somehow Serratore’s club flipped a switch, and they instantly became the postseason giant-killers of a year ago, a club that knocked out a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The coach, however, does not buy into the theory of a “flipped switch.” 

“I don’t look at it that way,” said Serratore on a very busy Monday. 

“We’ve been a pretty good team all year. We have the ability to put up numbers, we have the ability to defend well. It’s not like they forgot how to win. Obviously, did we want a little more consistency over the course of the season? Of course we did.”

The secret to how a team goes from mediocrity to playoff monster might be as simple as one tactical adjustment, one that Serratore hints at in his recent press conferences. 

“Staying on the right side of the puck.” 

That translates to players not cheating toward the offensive side of the puck during teammates’ 50-50 puck battles. It is a mindset that requires a buy-in from every player. 

“It sure helps, when you’re playing above pucks, it sure helps,” said Serratore.

He has also benefited from the hottest line in hockey: Alex Ierullo and the two Sillinger brothers, sophomore Lukas and senior Owen, a trio that put up all five goals in their 5-2 road demolition of Michigan Tech. The ferocious will to win of older brother Owen, not to mention his 47 points, is the catalyst that drives the Beavers. 

“Owen’s a dream to coach,” said Serratore, who compares his captain to former BSU greats Matt Read and Andrew Murray, players who have gone on to lengthy NHL careers. 

“His compete level is very high. In these types of games he can raise his game to another level.” 

Like the third period at Tech when Owen fought off three defenders in the attacking zone before setting up the goal that finished off the Huskies. 

Coach Mike Hastings will have the enemy numbers 12, 20 and 14 on the Maverick whiteboards all week long. 

“They’re one of the best lines in our league,” said Hastings. 

“They can cause a lot of headaches as you saw up at Tech.” 

There are no secrets between Serratore and Hastings, just a ton of respect from two proud members of Minnesota’s coaching fraternity. 

“We’ve been in the league together for so long, now the CCHA, we know it’s going to be an absolute battle because it always is.”

One must break down a variety of elements in search of a winning edge between these two finalists: in a one-and-done scenario, does BSU’s hot line cancel out MNSU’s staggering four-line depth? Unlike Minnesota State, Bemidji knows their season will end with a loss. Will that desperation offset the home-ice advantage from 5,000 exuberant fans at the Mayo Clinic Event Center? Possibly. 

This Mason Cup title game will come down to the same element that determines all hockey championships—goaltending. Can a freshman raised on the beaches of Southern California dethrone the most decorated goalie in the NCAA?

“We know it’s obviously a difficult task,” said Serratore about the challenge in front of Mattias Sholl, but the coach refuses to frame this championship game as a goalie vs goalie battle. 

“I don’t think he (Sholl) is looking across the way, 200 feet, and saying he’s playing against Dryden McKay; he’s playing against Minnesota State. He’s seeing the puck well, he’s confident, he’s a big puzzle piece.”

Hastings wouldn’t trade his stopper for anyone. With a win on Saturday, McKay will stand alone in NCAA history with a 35-win season. 

“Blessed to have him,” said Hastings. 

“Glad he’s wearing our jersey.”

Because of two crippling losing streaks this season, Serratore does not have the luxury of an at-large NCAA bid to extend his season like he did last year, a safety net that has rescued Michigan Tech. Bemidji is hoping for a fairytale ending to the reborn CCHA. 

“We’d love nothing more than to join Mankato and Tech in the NCAA tournament. It would be outstanding, great for the league.” 

But it would require a massive upset.

Prediction: The CCHA dream of three teams in the NCAA tournament will not be realized. The experienced McKay will carry the day, rewrite the record book, and hoist the Mason Cup.