Ha ha...beavers. Yes, I'm aware I'm like 12. No, I'm not concerned about it. Why? Because Hawaii is warm and I'm getting to do all sorts of cool things here while you deal with frozen things that's why. Anywho, it's time to talk puck with Jack Hittinger (@Jackhitts), the Bemidji State beat writer for the Bemidji Pioneer. You can find more of his stylish ramblings on The Beaver Blog.
The Daily Gopher: So...the WCHA as we know it is almost gone. What are your thoughts about the big changes in college hockey? What will you miss the most about the current configuration? Do you see any positives in the moves?
Jack Hittinger: It's going to be really weird seeing the new configurations in college hockey, that's for sure. I grew up in Michigan and followed the CCHA as much as I could. The fact that it's just going to be gone feels really strange to me. I always enjoyed that fact that college hockey was unique in that you saw small regional schools like Bemidji State or Michigan Tech or Ferris State or Wayne State (RIP) taking on the big boys like Michigan and Minnesota and Notre Dame in meaningful conference games. The fact that that's no longer the case makes me a little sad.
That said, I think the new WCHA will be better for the schools involved, at least from a competitive standpoint. All the schools in the new league (save Bowling Green) are Division II in every other sport and have similar athletic budgets. Granted, it will be tough to lose the ticket revenue from yearly guaranteed games against said big boys, and the national exposure won't be quite as high. But the fact that all of these schools have a better chance at earning an automatic tournament bid makes it more exciting for the schools involved.
TDG: I'm glad that the Gophers will be playing the other MN schools every season. Do you like the format of the Minnesota Cup? Any suggestions on a better name?
JH: I think the Minnesota Cup is a great idea. I like the fact that the Gophers playing all four other schools on a regular basis. From what I understand, the team that isn't included in the "Minnesota Cup" will host the Gophers in a nonconference series - which is also great.
As for the name, "Minnesota Cup" is fine. I think Patrick Ruesse suggested the "Herbie" or something like that in a column, which is fine by me too.
Actually, they could call it anything and as long as it isn't something stupid like the "Target Cup" or the "Best Buy Bowl" I'm fine with it.
TDG: I'll be honest, I'm not super familiar with BSU's roster. Who should I be keeping an eye on?
JH: BSU's not the kind of team that's going to have guys with insane, eye-popping offensive numbers. I don't think they every have been, but this year scoring has been even more of a struggle. Senior forward Jordan George may be the most recognizable name (maybe) to Gopher fans who don't follow BSU a whole ton, just because he's been on the team for a while and has led the team in scoring the past two years. He's got just 17 points this year, though, after getting at least 30 in every other year he's been playing. (Which should tell you something about how much BSU's offense has struggled this year).
Seniors Brance Orban and Aaron McLeod have also been scoring a ton for the Beavers this year (at least, relative to the rest of the team); McLeod is the only one in double-figures in goals (11), while Orban leads the team with 21 points.
I'd also watch out for some of the Beavers' young kids. I'm really impressed with this freshman class of Cory Ward, Phil Brewer, Markus Gerbrandt and Brad Robbins. Ward's been playing on-and-off with the first and second lines (Orban, McLeod, etc.) and has 12 points in 32 games. Also, they have some sophomore kids that are really starting to come into their own here down the stretch - Danny Mattson (a Holy Angels grad) is second on the team in scoring, and defenseman Matt Prappavessis is great on the penalty kill.
TDG: What matchups are you looking forward to seeing this weekend?
JH: I'd say I'm most interested in seeing if BSU can shut down the Gophers' top liners (Bjugstad, Rau, Huala, Condon, etc.) like they were able to do against UND's top guys last weekend. In Saturday's game in Grand Forks, the Beavers held UND's Grimaldi-Kristo-Knight line to just one point and were able to force a 2-2 tie. I don't think either of those players scored goals (although all three notches assists) in the two games. A lot of that credit goes to BSU's defensive core - Jake Areshenko and Brady Wacker aren't big offensive guys but they can get in there and mix it up with the best of them.
TDG: What do the Beavers need to do in order to beat the Gophers and ruin their MacNaughton hopes? Anything in particular you're hoping to see from BSU?
JH: Again, the Beavers definitely need to do their best to shut down Minnesota's top forward lines like they did last weekend.
Also, I hate to say this because I absolutely HATE the phrase/quote "We just have to play hard and play our game and stay the course blah blah blah," but the Beavers MUST control the pace of the game and play their style - that is, they've gotta slow the game down and play that slow, pesky, puck-control, capitalize-off-turnovers style that they've perfected over the years.
Now, this will surely illicit cries of "OH THIS IS SOOOOOO BOOOORING I HATE PLAYING BEMIDJI STATE!!!!" from some Gopher fans (if Minnesota Duluth fans and UND fans are any indication, anyway... and you guys are above that, right?), but if the Beavers try and play any other way, they will lose. It's just reality (just watch film of their games against Western Michigan or St. Cloud for evidence of this).
If they don't do that, BSU goaltender Andrew Walsh may be in for a long couple nights. He's been pretty solid past few series after struggling in the Beavers' recent 12-game winless streak, so I think he will be up the the challenge even if BSU can't slow things down and get defensive. But they will need to find him a goal or two.
TDG: What's your least favorite team in the WCHA? Why?
JH: I personally do not have a least-favorite WCHA team. And that's not a journalistic cop-out - I didn't grow up following the WCHA so I never got into these rivalries (you may find I have a different perspective if you were to ask me how much I disliked Michigan).
I can also tell you that Bemidji State fans in general don't really hate or dislike anyone in the CURRENT configuration of the league. (Maybe Denver? UNO? UMD? They haven't been in the league for very long, and were Division II for many years, which may have something to do with it.)
HOWEVER (pardon me if that sounds like Stephen A. Smith is shouting at you), Beaver fans have one team that they hate with a special kind of passion: Alabama-Huntsville.
This rivalry is so odd and so unlikely that it would probably be your favorite if you knew anything about it. It's, at the very least, the most underrated rivalry in college hockey.
But basically, the two teams were powerhouses for years in D-II, and then they both joined College Hockey America as D-1 members it intensified. The towns are separated by 1,200 miles and yet Bemidji State fans have their own "Who Hates Huntsville?" "We Hate Huntsville!" chant. (They started this chant against St. Cloud this year, which was hilarious.)
TDG: What are your predictions for Friday and Saturday?
JH: I'm really bad at making predictions. A lot of this is predicated on how the Beavers play defense. If they can do that, I can see them stealing a point or two from the Gophers. Both games at the Sanford Center are almost sold out - they're predicting that Saturday's game will be the largest crowd they've ever had - and the crowd could be a factor (if it isn't half Gopher fans).
OK, I'll stop avoiding the questions: I say Minnesota wins big on Friday and the Beavers rally back on Saturday night to win 2-1 in overtime. This has been something of a trend for them this year (losing Friday, rallying Saturday). Additionally, BSU hasn't won any overtime games this year, and they're long overdue, so I'll say they get one. (Not to mention the fact that our deadlines at the paper are earlier on Saturday night and of course it would happen in the last home game of the season.)
Great stuff! Thanks to Jack for putting up with the fact that my questions got to him over 24 later than promised because...Hawaii (ED NOTE: And yes, at this point I'm just bragging that it's 70 degrees at midnight Hawaii time). Be sure to stop back tonight and tomorrow night for the OPEN THREADS (which may or may not have titles involving beaver jokes...what can I say, I'm not one to pass on easy middle school humor).