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UMD, Bemidji State each would benefit from nonconference victories

Bemidji State goaltender Michael Bitzer (1) deflects a shot on goal from Alex Iafallo (14) of Minnesota Duluth during the Friday, Oct. 6, game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State tied 1-1. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Sammy Spurrell (28) of Minnesota Duluth and Nate Arentz (11) of Bemidji State compete for the puck during the Friday, Oct. 6, game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn. — A handful of the Northland's trees are still flush with leaves, some of them even green. There's another 18 days until Halloween — 73 until Christmas — and Major League Baseball is just getting its league championship series underway.

Of college hockey's 62 teams, 15 have yet to play a regular-season game this season, but to some in the sport, it's never too early to start thinking about Pairwise implications.

Yes, the announcement of the 16-team NCAA tournament field is still 156 days away, but the sport's selection process treats games in October and November the same as those in January and February.

So while coaches would love to not hear the word "Pairwise" before the snow begins to fall, they can't help but keep it in the back of their minds during an early October nonconference series like the one this weekend between Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth.

The home-and-home series begins at 7:07 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, at Sanford Center in Bemidji and concludes at 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.

"To me every game is important," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "I think our older guys know that. Our younger guys will figure that out."

The Bulldogs went 6-1-3 in regular-season nonconference play a year ago while the NCHC as a whole went a combined 54-23-14 (.670) to finish with the best combined nonconference winning percentage of all six NCAA Division I conferences for the third straight year.

UMD made the NCAA tournament via the NCHC's automatic berth after winning the Frozen Faceoff, but that wasn't necessary. The Bulldogs were going to be a No. 1 seed no matter what, thanks in part to their nonconference record.

The Beavers, and the rest of the WCHA, didn't have the same luxury last season, or the season before that. The league as a whole has struggled in nonconference play the last two seasons resulting in no at-large bids.

The WCHA finished fifth of six conferences with a .445 winning percentage in 2015-16, when fourth-place Ferris State won the league's automatic bid while co-regular season champs Minnesota State-Mankato and Tech stayed home.

Last year the WCHA was last in college hockey in nonconference winning percentage at .279, with Tech receiving the automatic bid after runaway regular-season champion Bemidji State was upset in the league semifinals.

The last two seasons are why first-year Huskies coach Joe Shawhan was more excited last Friday at the Ice Breaker in Duluth about his team's nonconference win over Union of the Eastern College Athletic Conference than his first win as a college head coach.

The Huskies went 3-6-1 in nonconference play last season and needed that automatic berth to keep playing, so it's not tough to be thinking about NCAA tournament implications in October, Shawhan said.

"All you think about is how important they are," Shawhan said about nonconference wins, like the one his Huskies notched Saturday over UMD. "It gives us an opportunity to get closer to what we want to do, which is have a chance at the end of the year and keep playing when other team's aren't."

Shawhan's position may seem extreme, but look what happened to the WCHA's runaway league champion a year ago, the Beavers. They went 20-6-2 in league play during the regular season to win the MacNaughton Cup by 10 points, but an 0-7-1 record in nonconference play meant they still needed the WCHA's automatic berth to reach the NCAA tournament.

The Beavers had put together their best season since leaving College Hockey America for the WCHA in 2010, and all it got them was 29th in the final Pairwise rankings.

"The guys realize if we did a little better nonconference last year, our fate could have been a little different," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "That's our league, too. You have to get it done nonconference. That's just the way it is. That's the way college hockey is structured."

Despite what happened last season, Serratore said it's too premature for him to begin thinking about the Pairwise. But that doesn't mean the Coleraine native is devaluing the importance of this weekend's series with the Bulldogs or next weekend's games against Atlantic Hockey's Air Force, coached by his brother, Frank.

Tom Serratore is looking for his team to do well in these first four nonconference games so the Beavers can build momentum going into WCHA play later this month.

"The thing I always tell our guys, and it's not really related to nonconference, but I always tell our guys, 'You're not going to win the league in October and November, but you sure can lose it," said Serratore, who is entering his 17th season as head coach of the Beavers. "Basically in a nutshell, you have to have a strong start. If you have a slow start, you're just chasing taillights and that gets old."


What: Nonconference series

When: 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday

Where: Sanford Center in Bemidji today/Amsoil Arena on Saturday

TV: My9 Saturday

Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9

Internet: (audio)

Twitter: @mattwellens