Calmness draped his face.
No tears, or even traces of dried tears, were on his cheeks. The redness that comes after crying or frustration looked like it hadn’t been near Michael Bitzer’s face in quite some time.
There stood Bitzer, up against a wall in the Xcel Energy Center, with no visible signs of stress or regret about the Minnesota state boys hockey tournament, or anything else for that matter.
“After playing four seasons, you just look at it like you’ll play next year,” Bitzer said following his team’s 2-1 loss to Lakeville South in the third-place game on Saturday. “I’ve just seen it as I’ll be playing again next year. Maybe it will hit me later.”
It is with that statement, that moment, these profound words that showed why Bitzer became a star at the state tournament – and maybe its biggest star.
Minnesota was convinced its state tournament was going to plan with all top four seeds winning, but the plan failed miserably.
All four seeds were taken out in Day 1 with some people saying there were certain teams that had no chance at pulling off an upset.
Yet Moorhead had a goaltender who’s middle name actually is Chance, who gave them every reason to think an upset was possible. Bitzer and Moorhead faced Eagan, a team with four Division I commits and a favorite to win a state title.
“Coach Morinville scouted one of their games,” said Spuds defenseman Terry Leabo prior to the state tournament. “And he saw that if things don’t go well with them, they get upset at each other.”
Leabo and his teammates admitted the plan was to find a way to knock Eagan off its game.
The plan turned out to be Bitzer. Bitzer made 34 saves in a 4-0 victory, which left Eagan and the rest of the state outwardly showing how they felt.
Eagan’s star forward Michael Zajac (Princeton) sat at the press conference with his arms folded, frustration across his face while his coach, Mike Taylor, summed it up the best way he could.
“The Wild,” Taylor said, “beat the Bruins.”
Others, namely the Twitterverse, were more complimentary. Bitzer was being praised by many, from people on press row at the Xcel Energy Center to Moorhead fans and anyone who just watched the game.
It didn’t stop there.
Bitzer was the talk of Minneapolis-St. Paul even if it was for a short while. Radio show hosts were talking about him. Fans coming in and out of the Xcel Center were asking each other various questions about Bitzer.
A seven-year-old having breakfast at the Holiday Inn across the street stopped eating his syrup with a side of french toast to ask his friends, “Did you see that goalie from Moorhead?”
What Bitzer did in one day further transcended what people in Moorhead had seen for the last four years. It made the state take notice and further understand why he is considered to be the best goaltender in Minnesota.
“I don’t know if it was his best game ever – but it was up there,” said Moorhead coach Dave Morinville about Bitzer’s performance against Eagan.
Bitzer and Moorhead went the distance with state finalist, Hill-Murray, only to lose 2-1 in overtime. Hill-Murray’s Conrad Sampair scored both goals against Bitzer having done something not too many have done.
Going back to the start of the section playoffs, Bitzer had only given up one goal in four games.
It’s why in the post-game press conference Morinville professed Moorhead was so close to having it all.
“We played not to lose,” Morinville said. “We should have played to win.”
Then came the third-place game, which Moorhead lost to Lakeville South and its Mr. Hockey candidate and frontrunner Justin Kloos (Minnesota), who scored a goal and an assist.
Finishing fourth was never the goal but it also wasn’t the only thing Bitzer walked away with.
Bitzer won the Herb Brooks Award, which goes to a Minnesota high school hockey player who best represents what Brooks stood for. Morinville said it was the first time a goaltender had ever won the award.
Then, to no surprise, Bitzer was named to the all-tournament team.
Looking back, there are several moments that can be pointed to as what made this year’s tournament so unique. Benilde-St. Margaret’s Grant Besse (Wisconsin) scoring five goals in the state title game might rank up there as No. 1.
Yet what Bitzer accomplished cannot be ignored.
Bitzer opened the season with the title of the state’s best, but it was somewhat couched because Lakeville North star Charlie Lindgren, who would have been a senior, left for the USHL this year. It was Lindgren and Lakeville North that eliminated Bitzer and Moorhead from last season’s state consolation tournament.
Bitzer’s season started with being listed on several NHL Draft watchlists and seven straight wins, but it wasn’t in the convincing fashion as he had done as a junior. Bitzer had games where he didn’t have to bail Moorhead out, making some wonder when or if the best of him would come out.
It did in the playoffs, with Bitzer only giving up one goal in the entire postseason and adding to what was an impressive senior season. Bitzer finished this season with a 22-8 record, 750 saves, a 1.80 goals against average, a .933 save percentage and seven shutouts.
Bitzer will more than likely win the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender, which will be handed out later today. He will also more than likely be a member of the Associated Press’ first team for boys hockey.
He walked away with several awards and accolades, but in truth, a place in Moorhead history so many have fallen short of achieving.
Moorhead has been defined by the state-record seven second-place finishes it has had throughout its storied, yet haunted, program. It’s as many second-place finishes as rival Roseau has in state titles.
It might be what people here focus on, but for a minute, look at what Bitzer did.
With the awards, a fourth-place finish and a varsity starter for four years, he has cemented himself as one of the best to play at Moorhead.
Moorhead’s gifts to the state’s hockey lexicon have been Matt Cullen and practically his entire family. There has also been defenseman and former first-round draft pick Brian Lee, who was a member of one of the most dominant teams in state history to never win a title and Lee also won Mr. Hockey.
Bitzer’s career has allowed him to get close to the pedestal, but this weekend witnessed him vault over the barrier and into the discussion of one of this program’s all-time greats.
His legacy cemented, his future is open for change. Bitzer has signed a tender with Alexandria (NAHL), but with this performance, it is extremely possible he will get taken in the USHL draft in May.
A smile leaped onto his face when talking about his future because it has promise.
Not so much the promise of achieving his dreams.
But the promise of knowing there’s more to come.