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Scouting Report: Merrimack vs. Bemidji State

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Bemidji State’s bipolar start: The Beavers are both one of the best defensive teams and one of the worst offensive teams in the country, but it’s worked for them, posting a 4-1 start. The key to Bemidji’s success has been good goaltending but also shot suppression. The Beavers only allow 25 shots on goal per game and they’ve allowed the third-fewest shot attempts in the country (among teams that have played at least six games). At the same time, Bemidji has attempted the second-fewest shots in the country.

In other words, the Beavers are playing a very low-event game. There aren’t many chances at either end, and the Beavers have relied on a healthy and veteran D corps to suppress their opponent’s chances.

Working in new goalies: Bemidji graduated goaltender Mike Bitzer in the spring. Over the last four years, he played in 138 games for the Beavers. Sophomores Henry Johnson (.973) and Zach Driscoll (.963) are splitting time to start the season and they’re playing quite well. But again, a lot of their performance comes down to Bemidji’s shot suppression. Their save percentage in impressive, even though they haven’t faced a lot of shots. Without seeing shot charts — but watching some of the Beavers on video — they don’t allow many quality attempts either.

The Beavers make it really hard to generate chances. Their D was physical but not very explosive offensively (even though they skate well). Their six veteran D have combined for just three assists in six games. They aren’t going to push the puck or provide much flair on the blue line, but they will smother you in the defensive zone and make it hard to get pucks to the net. Their D has played a very simple, yet effective, game.

Travel a factor?: We’ll see if Bemidji has any tired legs this weekend. I tend not to put too much stock in fatigue when it comes to college hockey, considering these players are in the late-teens or early-20s, and they generally only play games on the weekend. However, Bemidji’s schedule to start the year has been weird. They began the year with a home-and-home against North Dakota, which is about a two-hour bus ride. The next weekend the Beavers boarded the bus for a seven-hour ride to Northern Michigan. Then last week, they hit the airport for a trip to Anchorage, which generally has at least one (sometimes two) stops, and a total travel time of 10+ hours each way.

Fatigue hasn’t played a factor yet, but we’ll see if there’s any jet lag this weekend.

Also, Anchorage is bad. Like, really bad. They’re one of the worst teams in college hockey. To give you an example of how little was happening in those games last week, shot attempts were 38-31 Bemidji on the first night and then 34-29 Bemidji on the second night of the series. … Not shots on goal … shot attempts. To put that in perspective, the Bemidji-Anchorage series featured a TOTAL of 126 shots attempts. Merrimack and Boston College combined for 209 shot attempts in their two games last weekend.

Shot attempts will be key: The one loss on Bemidji’s record was against Northern Michigan, where the Wildcats attempted 60 shots. In Bemidji’s other five games, they’ve averaging 43.4 shot attempts against per game. While their goalie numbers are certainly impressive, I don’t think either goaltender has been tested yet. Merrimack needs to get pucks to the net, because the more “events” that take place in the game (i.e. the more shot attempts) the more the game plays into Merrimack’s hands.

The Warriors usually don’t want to be the team that opens up the ice and plays an up-and-down-the-sheet style, but the more the game looks like that, the more the game develops in Merrimack’s favor. The Warriors lack some scoring punch, but Bemidji really lacks some scoring punch. The more Merrimack can open up the ice and test Bemidji’s untested goaltenders, the better the weekend should go for the Warriors.

Not to sound like a broken record, but Bemidji doesn’t want a lot to happen in these games. They’ll be content to take three or four scoring chances and hopefully capitalize on two of them, while not allowing much at the other end.

It’s going to be a hard game for the Warriors this weekend. They’re going to have to battle for every inch at the front of their opponent’s net. But the more they can get the puck there, and force Bemidji to open up the ice, the better.

Beavers to watch: Jay Dickman doesn’t have a goal yet this season, but the senior potted 15 of them last year. … Brendan Harris leads the team in scoring, but he seems to be more of a distributor than a scorer. … Aaron Miller might be Bemidji’s most well-rounded forward.

Merrimack’s Three Keys

  1. Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! — I’ll write it again, the Warriors need to get pucks on net. The more they do, the more their chances for victory increase. Shots from the point will be important this weekend. Johnathan Kovacevic should be the best player on the ice. I don’t think Bemidji’s goalies have been tested, so if the Warriors can create traffic and allow Kovacevic to sneak pucks through from up top, it can open up scoring chances.
  2. Pantano has to rebound — Craig Pantano was pulled at Army earlier this year, and he followed that up by shutting out Boston University. He’s responded well to these situations, and after getting yanked again at BC on Saturday night, the Warriors will need him to find his game again quickly. Bemidji lacks firepower, and when Pantano is at the top of his game, he can shutout one of the more skilled teams in Hockey East. He can make it a hellish weekend for Bemidji State if he’s on his game.
  3. Get the power play cooking — When you’re playing a team that doesn’t allow many goals, capitalizing on the power play is almost a must. The more Bemidji players you can remove from the ice, the harder it will be for them to suppress shots. It’s pretty simple.

About Mike McMahon

Mike McMahon is in his 13th year covering Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike also serves on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN

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