Bemidji, Minn. — A young Bemidji State men’s hockey team faces a big-time opponent tonight in its first game of the regular season.
The Beavers will open the lid on the 2018-19 campaign with a home-and-home, non-conference series against North Dakota. The first game is set for 7:07 p.m. tonight at the Sanford Center before the series shifts west for a 7:07 p.m. puck drop Saturday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.
Both teams hosted Canadian schools in exhibitions last weekend with BSU topping Lakehead, 5-1, and UND edging Manitoba in overtime, 3-2. The Fighting Hawks outshot the Bisons, 55-9, but gave up a 2-0 lead in the third period and needed an overtime goal from senior forward Rhett Gardner to salvage the win.
However, this weekend’s series is for real.
“What they’re going to see this weekend is a totally different animal from what they saw last weekend,” said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. “I mean there’s not going to be many available seats both nights.”
“The building is going to be packed, everyone knows that,” added senior forward Jay Dickman. “It’s always sold out against North Dakota.”
Nine newcomers will make their regular season debuts for Bemidji State by playing in front of two sold-out buildings.
“The guys are going to have their eyes wide open, those young guys,” Serratore said. “And you know what, the same for North Dakota’s young guys. Youth is youth, and the only way you get experience is playing games.”
Like the Beavers, the Hawks are experiencing their own youth wave in adding seven freshmen. Gone is defenseman and leading scorer Christian Wolanin, as well as longtime goalie Cam Johnson.
All told, the only players remaining from the 2016 national championship squad are Gardner, senior forward Joel Janatuinen and senior defenseman Hayden Shaw.
Injuries also contributed to UND missing the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2002.
But North Dakota is never down for long.
Four Hawks rookies this season are NHL draft picks — first-round pick Jacob Bernard-Docker, second-round pick Jonny Tychonick, fourth-round pick Jasper Weatherby and sixth-round pick Gavin Hain.
NCHC coaches picked UND to finish third in the league, behind national champion Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. The Hawks are ranked No. 12 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, and No. 13 in the USCHO.com poll.
The Beavers will treat their Highway 2 rivals as they always do.
“To me they’re the same North Dakota team,” Serratore said. “They’re deep, they’ve got good speed, they play hard. They’re very tough to play against. You know their identity and we just have to make sure that we’re ready to respond on Friday because it’s just going to be a hard-fought weekend.”
The Beavers have won their last four season openers, a streak that dates back to a 5-1 win in Grand Forks in 2014. They’ll be hoping to make it five straight tonight.
“It’s hard to pinpoint those types of things, but you hope you have success this year,” Serratore said. “It doesn’t really matter how much success you’ve had in years past. We’re living in the moment right now and we want to have success this weekend.”