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Take Five With Bemidji Beat Writer Eric Stromgren

Photo: Nicole Haase
Photo: Nicole Haase

We're back once again with our weekly "Take Five" series where we take a deeper look into the hockey Badgers opposition by chatting with local beat writers from around the country. This week Wisconsin is packing up the bus (errrr charter plane) and hitting the road as they travel to Bemidji to take on the Bemidji State Beavers.

Earlier this week I was able to chat with Bemidji beat writer Eric Stromgren (@estromgren), who covers Bemidji State for the Bemidji Pioneer. Eric also does a fantastic job with his 'Up North Sports Report' blog which is dedicated to coverage of the men's and women's hockey teams at Bemidji State.

Wisconsin is coming off a home split last weekend against Denver. Bemidji State was swept on the road last weekend at Minnesota.

This week I was able to chat with Eric about Bemidji's goaltending situation, the forwards to watch out for, and what Brad Hunt brings to this Beaver squad.

B5Q: I think everyone is pretty familiar with leading scorer Jordan George. Who are some of the other offensive threats that Wisconsin will have to keep an eye on this weekend?

Stromgren: Senior Shea Walters is having his best year with 10 goals and 20 points. He has a good shot, but is scoring his goals this year by working hard around the net. Half of his goals this year have come on the power play.

The top line of George, Aaron McLeod and Ben Kinne have been an effective combination this year and have eight of BSU's 15-game winning goals. McLeod has deceptive speed and an accurate shot. Kinne has a knack for scoring timely goals in tight games.

Radoslav Illo, an Anaheim draft pick, has a good shot though his status for this weekend is uncertain. The Slovakian has missed the last five games with an undisclosed lower body injury and head coach Tom Serratore gave him a 50 percent chance to play this weekend.

B5Q: Goaltender Dan Bakala once again has a save percentage just under .920 for the third year in a row. He's just kind of a consistent rock back there for the Beavers isn't he?

Stromgren: That's a fair assertion to make when looking at his overall season. What's lost in that stat is how much he struggled to be consistent in the first half of the year.

Bakala was not his same self in the first half of the season and that opened the door for freshman Andrew Walsh, who has played in 11 games this season and was the Hockey Commissioners Association Rookie of the Month in December.

Bakala was 2-5-1 in his first eight starts this year with a .875 save percentage. Some games he wasn't at his best and some games he was let down by bad defensive zone coverage. He is 7-4-1 since BSU's 1-0 win against North Dakota back on Nov. 20 and has started the last six games in a row.

Bakala's best games this season have come during this stretch. He had 73 saves on 78 shots in a BSU sweep at Nebraska-Omaha to start February. The key to his success in the second half has been a result of cutting down shooting angles, rebound control and making acrobatic saves.

B5Q: Defenseman Brad Hunt seems to be one of the more under-rated players in the WCHA. He'd definitely be on my All-WCHA team, but his name rarely comes up in conversations about the top players in the league. Can you give us a sense of how important Hunt is to this Bemidji team?

Stromgren: I think the biggest reason why Hunt is overlooked in those conversation is his size. He's listed at 5-foot-9 and 168 pounds, so his strength as a defenseman relies on his mobility and his slap shot. I've heard many coaches outside of Bemidji describe that shot as NHL-caliber.

Hunt's shot is especially effective as the quarterback on the power play and that's where he's picked up eight of his 22 points this season. If he doesn't score on the shot, there's generally a rebound for a second-chance opportunity around the net.

He's more than an a offensive-style defenseman, though. I think some of his best contributions go unnoticed. He is a leader on the penalty kill, is smart making plays in the defensive zone during even-strength plays and logs a significant amount of minutes.

B5Q: Finish the sentence. For the Beavers to have success this weekend, they must...

Stromgren: Get the offense going.

BSU is the second-lowest scoring team in the WCHA (61 goals), but broke the trend by scoring 15 goals in four games prior to losing 3-0 and 4-1 to Minnesota at Mariucci Arena last weekend.

The Beavers will want to get back to that trend and if they do, the defense should hold up. BSU has not tended not to play in shootouts this season.

B5Q: Time to put you on the spot Eric, what is your prediction for this weekend's series?

Stromgren: Bemidji State has played so well at home this year (11-4-1) and Wisconsin can't seem to win away from the Kohl Center (1-8-1). I think these will be two competitive games, but I'm liking the Beavers to sweep this weekend in the two final home games of the regular season.

We can't thank Eric enough for taking the time out to do this for us. Make sure you're following him on twitter (@estromgren), and check out his blog.

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