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MEN’S HOCKEY: BSU, UND rekindle regional rivalry

BEMIDJI -- It doesn’t get much bigger than this.

A regional rivalry will be rekindled tonight as the Bemidji State men’s hockey team hosts No. 7 North Dakota at the Sanford Center in the first game of a non-conference home-and-home series.

“I think every time the week before we play North Dakota there’s a little more excitement in the (locker) room,” senior forward Kyle Bauman said. “Everyone’s trying a little harder in practice maybe. Everyone’s just so excited to play them. It’s a great rivalry we have between the two teams and we’re just really excited.”

The teams enter the weekend with identical 11-6-5 records. Bemidji State sits in fourth place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association at 8-4-4-2, while North Dakota is tied for first in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference at 6-4-2-2 and even on points with St. Cloud State.

The series between the schools dates back to 1970 with the Fighting Hawks holding a 30-3-4 advantage, though eight of the last 12 meetings have been decided by a goal or less with BSU going 2-7-3 in those games. That includes last season’s two meetings in Grand Forks, N.D., with a pair of one-goal losses to then-No. 1 UND last October.

“We know what we’re getting into. It’s always a hornets’ nest,” Serratore said, “but again, it’s a great challenge for us. We’ve been playing good hockey as of late.”

That’s an apt description for the nine-game unbeaten streak (6-0-3) BSU is riding, the longest such run for the program since 2006-07. With six straight wins, the Beavers are also enjoying their best win streak since the 2008-09 Frozen Four season.

The Beavers had won comfortably in the first five games of their win streak, but showed they can handle adversity by overcoming a 2-0 deficit with five second-period goals to win 6-3 last Saturday at Lake Superior State.

“There’s a lot of confidence and I think that’s huge coming down the stretch here,” senior goaltender Michael Bitzer said. “(On) Saturday night I think that showed. We were down two goals early and no one was worried on the bench. We knew what we had to do come back in the game and we were able to do it.”

The Fighting Hawks are coming off a series split with Omaha, falling 4-1 in the first game before roaring back for a 7-0 win last Saturday at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Defenseman Christian Wolanin leads the team with 18 points, including team-highs in goals (6) and assists (12), while forwards Nick Jones and Shane Gersich follow with 15 points (6g-9a) and 14 points (6g-8a), respectively.

Tonight’s game will be Bemidji State’s last at home for the month before hitting the road for five games. Fans and players alike have had this one circled on their calendars.

“It’s going to be packed on Friday night. It’s going to be crazy in there,” Bauman said. “I think the guys that haven’t experienced it yet are in for a treat and the guys that have been here for four years, like myself, I think we realize how big of a game it is and how the intense the game’s (going to) be.”

Attendance up for BSU

With regional bragging rights on the line, tonight’s game between Bemidji State and North Dakota is likely to draw a sellout crowd to the Sanford Center.

A capacity crowd of 4,373 fans filled the Sanford Center the last time BSU hosted UND on Oct. 16, 2015, which was also the last home sellout for the Beavers.

“It’s going to be a great crowd,” Serratore said. “There’s going to be a lot of North Dakota fans, who’s kidding who. There’ll be a lot of North Dakota fans here but the building’s (going to) be rocking. It’s (going to) be a great atmosphere.”

Though the Beavers do not regularly sell out their home arena like the Fighting Hawks -- UND draws an NCAA Division I-best 11,332 fans per game to Ralph Engelstad Arena -- attendance for BSU home games has increased by an average of 309 fans per game this season. The team is averaging 3,033 fans per home contest this season, up from 2,724 in 2016-17.

Games have not aired on Lakeland Public Television this season as they had in years past. BSU wanted Lakeland to pay a rights fee to televise games and the station could not afford to pay the additional fee, Lakeland CEO Bill Sanford said last June.

The Beavers averaged 3,826 fans per game in the 2010-11 season, their first season at the Sanford Center, for their best average attendance since moving into the building.

BSU ranks 26th out of 60 NCAA Division I programs in attendance this season and will travel to the top-ranked team Saturday when the Beavers conclude their series with North Dakota, a game that will also be televised by Midco Sports Network. After UND, the highest-drawing teams in Division I are Wisconsin (9,623 fans per game), Minnesota (8,348), Penn State (5,998) and Denver (5,839).

Bemidji State will host just four more regular season games after tonight. The team will welcome Lake Superior State (Feb. 2-3) and Alaska (Feb. 15-16) to town for its final WCHA home series of the season.

The Beavers are 7-3-3 in 13 home games on the year entering tonight’s game.

BSU vs. North Dakota

When: 7:07 tonight; 7:07 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Sanford Center on Friday; Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D. on Saturday.

TV: Midco Sports Network on Saturday only.

Radio: Beaver Radio Network/103.7 FM.

Records: BSU 11-6-5; UND 11-6-5.

Austin Monteith

Austin Monteith is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is an Illinois native and a Butler University graduate. Follow him on Twitter @amonteith92.

(218) 333-9787
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