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Faceoffs key to UND's success

GRAND FORKS -- At the end of most University of North Dakota men's hockey practices, the centers gather around the dots. One of their coaches or teammates will repeatedly drop pucks as they work on one of the small areas of the game that the Figh...

University of North Dakota forward Tyson Jost (17) and University of Denver forward Tyson McLellan (9) face-off during the second period of the game at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. on Nov. 11, 2016. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)
University of North Dakota forward Tyson Jost (17) and University of Denver forward Tyson McLellan (9) face-off during the second period of the game at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. on Nov. 11, 2016. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS - At the end of most University of North Dakota men's hockey practices, the centers gather around the dots.

One of their coaches or teammates will repeatedly drop pucks as they work on one of the small areas of the game that the Fighting Hawks have started to use to their advantage in a big way.

UND is the best faceoff team in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference by a wide margin and is tracking toward being one of the program's best faceoff teams in the last decade.

The No. 5 Fighting Hawks (7-4-2) enter this weekend's series against Michigan State (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday) winning 55.1 percent of their draws. The second-best faceoff team in the league is Western Michigan at 52 percent, followed by Denver (49.6), Omaha (49.5), St. Cloud State (49.2), Miami (47.1), Minnesota Duluth (46.5) and Colorado College (46.0).

UND dominated that area last weekend in St. Cloud State, going 79-38 (67.5 percent) in the circle during a two-game sweep of the Huskies.

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It was a major reason why the Fighting Hawks killed all eight St. Cloud State power plays. Routinely, UND won the initial draw on the penalty kill and was able to immediately send it the length of the ice.

It also is a major reason why UND was able to get its power play back on track, scoring three times with the man advantage.

"It's a mentality of starting with the puck instead of expending energy chasing," UND coach Brad Berry said. "It's something we work on consistently."

UND is putting up the impressive numbers despite losing its top two centers from last season's national championship team to NHL contracts in Nick Schmaltz and Luke Johnson.

All four of UND's regular centers - freshman Tyson Jost, sophomore Rhett Gardner, freshman Ludvig Hoff and junior Johnny Simonson - rank in the top 10 in the NCHC in faceoff percentage.

Jost leads the league at 63.2 percent - quite a ways ahead of second-place Tanner Ockey of Colorado College's 59.7 percent. Simonson ranks fourth at 55.5 percent. Hoff is seventh at 53.9 percent and Gardner is 10th at 53.1 percent.

At times, UND will ask winger Brock Boeser to take draws, too. He's at 52.7 percent.

Jost is on pace to break UND's single-season record for faceoff percentage - a stat that has been tracked since 2003-04. The current record is held by Corban Knight at 59.9 percent.

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"Tyson is good," Hoff said. "He's got a couple of good techniques that I haven't figured out yet.

"You can tell he has been working on it. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing."

Hoff said two of UND's big keys to winning faceoffs is video scouting and the wingers helping out.

Fighting Hawks players watch video every week on the opposition's faceoffs, looking for weaknesses and tendencies.

"That has been working out well so far," Hoff said.

UND also practices faceoffs with wingers involved, too.

They are often keys to winning faceoffs on 50-50 battles where loose pucks are left sitting near the centers' feet.

"I think a lot of why we're that successful is because of our wingers coming in and helping," Hoff said. "We can say that we'll tie up our guy and expect them to get the puck back. It's not just the centers. It's all the forwards doing a good job."

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UND sixth in the nation, only behind Union, Penn State, Notre Dame, Providence, Boston College.

Its team faceoff percentage of 55.1 is the school's best since 2010-11, when it set the single-season school mark at 56.3 percent.

That team's centers were Knight (single-season record of 59.9 percent), Brad Malone (57.7), Mario Lamoureux (55.6) and Brock Nelson (53.7).

"First of all, we work on them," Berry said. "That's a daily thing in practice. We work on it before, during or after. A lot of our drills are consistent with winning the first battle, which starts with a faceoff."

Subway Holiday Classic

This weekend's series will mark the annual Subway Holiday Classic. It's the seventh consecutive year that the event has been a two-game series instead of a four-team tournament.

Recent opponents have been Alabama Huntsville, Omaha, St. Lawrence, Holy Cross, Colorado College and Notre Dame.

About 400 tickets remain for tonight's game, while 600-800 are available Saturday.

UND played Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., over Thanksgiving weekend last season.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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