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UND MEN'S HOCKEY: Once a sure bet, sweeps against BSU have become elusive

Christian Wolanin has a theory why UND is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009. "It's because we haven't played Bemidji to start the year," he said. He might be on to something. Bemidji State, which started its Division-I era going 0-...

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Bemidji State goaltender Michael Bitzer watches the play during a recent game at the Sanford Center. The junior from Moorhead, who had two shutouts last weekend against Northern Michigan, was named the WCHA's defensive player of the week on Monday. Bitzer has 12 career shutouts and is tied with former Beaver Matt Climie for the program's all-time shutout record.

Christian Wolanin has a theory why UND is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009.

"It's because we haven't played Bemidji to start the year," he said.

He might be on to something.

Bemidji State, which started its Division-I era going 0-19-1 against its U.S. Highway 2 rival, has suddenly become one of UND's biggest annual pests.

It has now been five seasons since UND has swept Bemidji State. It has been six years since UND has done it in the regular season.

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While the Fighting Hawks have still had the upper hand in the series during that span, going 7-2-3 since 2011-12, almost nobody has consistently made it so difficult on UND.

Consider that UND has swept every National Collegiate Hockey Conference team in one of the last two meetings, but hasn't been able to do the same to Bemidji State in five series, going back to the 2012 playoffs.

"We have a great rivalry with North Dakota," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "We've had a lot of good games. I don't know if we've won a lot of games, but we've tied a lot of them.

"We've had some great battles with them. A lot of those games go down to the wire. I think we play very similar. We are both puck-pressure teams. We both have high energy. We both want to be skating-based teams. I think it's exciting hockey whether the games are in Grand Forks or Bemidji."

The challenge is expected to continue when the teams meet for a two-game series (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday) in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The Beavers (4-0) enter the weekend ranked No. 18 nationally. It is the first time they've been ranked in the national polls since March 22, 2010.

They are led by the play of goalie Michael Bitzer, a Moorhead High School graduate who hasn't allowed a goal in 156 minutes, 20 seconds.

Last weekend, Bitzer posted back-to-back shutouts of Northern Michigan on the road. He opened the season by allowing two goals in two games to Western Collegiate Hockey Association preseason favorite Bowling Green. The Beavers also swept that series.

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Bemidji State currently ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (0.50 goals-allowed per game), while Bitzer ranks first nationally in goals-against average (0.50) and save percentage (.977) among netminders who have played more than one game.

The Beavers also have yet to allow a power-play goal this season. They are a national-leading 22-for-22 on the penalty kill.

"They defend very well," UND coach Brad Berry said. "They close in and around him and move pucks extremely well. We're going to have to make sure when we get in the offensive zone, we play fast and get pucks to the net. Any time you get lateral, you get pretty, and that's the time when the puck is going the other way.

"With a team that defends very well, you have to make sure you put pucks to the net and get bodies and traffic there."

While both games this weekend will be held in Grand Forks-the place Bitzer opened his college career with a 5-1 victory-the series will return to being a home-and-home (one game in Grand Forks, one in Bemidji) next season.

"They always give us a hard time," Wolanin said. "Our track record recently shows that. They're going to play their best game.

"Our talent isn't going to beat a team like Bemidji. We need to outwork them."

Gardner likely to play

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UND coach Brad Berry said forward Rhett Gardner is likely to return to the lineup this weekend for the Bemidji State series.

Gardner, UND's second-line center, has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury. Ludvig Hoff played second-line center in his absence.

Gardner scored a goal in his lone game this season.

Nonconference rush

UND has been dominant in nonconference play the last three seasons. Including this year's 3-0 start, the Fighting Hawks are 21-1-3 in nonconference play since October 2014.

UND's remaining nonconference games are at Minnesota (two games), home against Michigan State (two), at Union (one) and vs. Boston College (one) in New York City's Madison Square Garden.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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