Beavers all-in again

No. 1 MSU hockey gunning for elusive national title

Alex Eisen/MDN Minot State senior captain Eric Bollefer (51) shields the puck from Midland senior forward Ben Henry (11) in a game played earlier this season at Maysa Arena in Minot.

DYER, Ind. — Fatigued after an overnight bus ride, the No. 1-seeded Minot State University men’s hockey club took to the ice Wednesday afternoon at the Midwest Training and Ice Center in Indiana.

The one-hour practice session didn’t look pretty at times, but it did serve its purpose. The Beavers got their legs going again before having to cram back on the team bus Thursday morning for the 300 more miles that await to reach Columbus, Ohio for the ACHA National Championships.

“We came in with the mindset that it was probably going to be a little sluggish,” MSU coach Wade Regier said. “We did a lot of battle drills, worked on 2-on-1’s with some back checkers just to get the blood flowing. I loved the energy and effort side of it, but we can definitely chalk that practice up to shaking off the rust. Hopefully, tomorrow’s practice will be nice and precise, so we will be ready to play on Friday.”

The Beavers (36-2-1), even though they didn’t look like it in Wednesday’s practice, are the hottest team in the league coming into the postseason.

They have won 21 straight games and haven’t lost since dropping a 3-2 decision to the University of Jamestown on Nov. 17, 2017. During this impressive win streak, MSU has outscored its opponents 131-22. That’s 6.24 goals per game and 1.05 goals against, with seven of the 21 wins being shutouts.

“After we lost to Jamestown, that was like a figuring it out moment,” senior captain Eric Bollefer said. “We can’t beat everyone if we are just average, so we started playing like we should and just kept rolling from there.”

The Beavers enter the national tournament with the No. 1 seed for the third consecutive season. The last two attempts at capturing the program’s second national title were unsuccessful and unsettling. Last year, they lost to eventual champions Central Oklahoma in the semifinals and the year prior to that they fell in the quarterfinals.

“It’s kind of motivated a lot of these guys,” Regier said. “Certainly, there is some pressure. But, I think of all the years, this group is probably better at adapting to (the pressure) by having been through so many national tournaments and understand what it takes to be successful.”

Since it’s been five years since MSU won its only national title – doing so as a No. 3 seed – nobody on the current roster knows what it’s like to reach the top of the mountain. These Beavers have only felt the agony of being so close and then getting smacked by an avalanche to derail their season.

Regular season domination doesn’t guarantee a national championship, especially in a single-elimination playoff format where the Beavers need to win four games in five days to bring home the hardware.

“When you look at it that way, it seems really difficult,” Bollefer said. “But, if you take it one game at a time. Win one game and you get another day. Break it down into smaller chunks like shifts and periods, then it becomes more manageable it seems like.”

Difficulty aside, the mantra for MSU hockey continues to remain the same year in and year out.

“It’s championship or bust, especially with this group,” Regier said. “The way we have played this year and with the hot streak that we are on, it’s a championship or a complete failure. I know that seems a little harsh, but I think our seniors and everybody knows that. We know we are built to win right now. We have the all tools, character and pieces. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”

Offensively, the Beavers are well balanced with nine skaters scoring 10 or more goals and 21 players with 10 or more points. Sophomore Johl Swedlo has a team-high 42 points (18 goals and 24 assists), followed by senior Lyndon Lipinski (38 points on 22 goals and 16 assists), senior Austin Yano (35 points on 18 goals and 17 assists) and senior Sam Briscoe (34 points on 14 goals and 20 assists).

Yano anchors the defense with Bollefer. MSU has only allowed 50 goals in 39 games this season.

“It starts with the goalies,” Yano said. “Our goalies have been unbelievable, all three of them. Then, the forwards bring the back press, and that allows the defense to make plays, step up and try to keep the puck out of our zone as much as possible. The seven guys we have out there on a nightly basis, I couldn’t say a bad thing about any one of them.”

Sophomore goaltender Joshua Bykowski hasn’t been beaten all season (18-0) with a .926 save percentage and 1.39 goals against. Junior goalie Holden Kurtz (9-2) bolsters a .957 save percentage with 0.9 goals against per game. Then, there is also freshman Brey Effertz who is undefeated (9-0) as well.

The Beavers opening national tournament game is on Friday at 7 p.m. and they will face the winner of Thursday’s first round game between No. 16-seeded Arizona (23-11-3) vs. No. 17-seeded Missouri State (19-13-4).

“They are two teams that are very identical,” Regier said. “They each have two or three guys that are very good, especially at the back end. But, on paper, our depth outshines those teams. So, if we can get our third and fourth lines rolling, no team in the country can match our depth.”

Before the national title quest can begin, MSU will have another needed tune-up practice this afternoon once they arrive in Columbus.

Alex Eisen covers Minot High School, Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.