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Talented core remains for Bemidji State men’s team

Bemidji State freshman Owen Sillinger (12) skates with the puck during their outdoor game against Michigan Tech on Jan. 18, 2019, in Bemidji, Minn. (Jillian Gandsey | Forum News Service)

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Veteran defensemen and a stingy penalty-kill unit led the way for a 2018-19 Bemidji State men’s hockey team that fell short in its Western Collegiate Hockey Association quarterfinal series last weekend against Lake Superior State.

The fifth-seeded Beavers were swept by the fourth-seeded Lakers in the best-of-three series, falling 4-2 and 3-1 in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. BSU ended its season with a 15-17-6 overall record and a 13-13-4-2 mark against league foes.

The penalty kill, which entered the weekend ranked fifth in the country, now sits at 13th overall (85.5 percent) after allowing three power-play goals on the weekend. The power-play unit also struggled, going 0-for-3 in the series.

“Five-on-five, I couldn’t have asked for more out of our guys,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “... The difference between winning and losing in the playoffs is special teams and goaltending. Our goaltending was fine. Our special teams didn’t get it done.”

Though the Beavers began the season with the least experienced group of forwards in the WCHA, the forwards proved they could hold their own. Despite losing talented seniors up front to graduation, the young forwards -- comprised of six freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and two seniors -- actually helped the team score more even-strength goals this season (72) than in 2017-18 (69).

“You don’t know what to expect, but I thought those guys really matured throughout the year,” Serratore said. “It’s the best year we’ve had in a while for five-on-five scoring.”

Defensively, Bemidji State gave up only 2.47 goals per game, ranking the team 19th in the country.

“Our back line was pretty strong, and we knew that going in,” Serratore said. “I thought they did exactly what they needed to do.”

The Beavers received solid performances in net from sophomore goaltenders Zach Driscoll and Hank Johnson.

After alternating the first half of the season, Driscoll started in net the final 18 games. Driscoll went 10-11-4 in 26 starts and posted a 2.32 goals against average with a .909 save percentage. Johnson finished 5-5-2 in 12 starts with a 1.96 GAA and .916 save percentage.

The season featured a season-opening win over then-No. 13 North Dakota, as well as wins over Minnesota State and Bowling Green, which were ranked third and eighth at the time, respectively.

Senior blueliner and Bemidji native Dillon Eichstadt delivered what may have been the team’s most memorable win of the year by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against Michigan Tech in a frigid outdoor game played alongside Lake Bemidji. Aaron Miller’s buzzer-beating goal in a 2-1 win over Northern Michigan also ranks high on the season highlight reel.

Narrow losses to Alabama Huntsville, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska may have cost BSU home ice in the playoffs, but results even out in the end, Serratore said.

“Are there some games you want back? Absolutely,” the coach said. “But are there some games that we won that we probably shouldn’t have? Probably, too. There’s always that factor.”

Bemidji State will lose six seniors to graduation this offseason -- defensemen Eichstadt, Justin Baudry, Dan Billett and Ian Janco; and forwards Jay Dickman and Mike Soucier.

Five blueliners will return and four incoming recruits will supplement the group.

“I like our corps coming back. We like our defensemen,” Serratore said. “That’s going to be an area where we’re going to be a little bit inexperienced next year, kind of like our forward group this year. … But we like our four defensemen coming in.”

With a load of young forwards and goalies returning, Serratore is excited heading into the 2019-20 season.

“We’ve got our goaltenders back, and we’ve got a great nucleus back with our forward group,” Serratore said. “They’re just going to be that much better next year. There’s a lot to build on.”