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How special teams could change UND's fortunes

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The University of North Dakota men's hockey team is on its longest winless streak in 14 years. In large part, special teams are to blame. During the current six-game win drought -- coming against No. 1 Denver, No. 2 Minnesota...

University of North Dakota forward Austin Poganski (14) attempts to gain control of the puck from University of Denver defenseman Will Butcher (4) during the first period of Saturday’s game against Denver at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
University of North Dakota forward Austin Poganski (14) attempts to gain control of the puck from University of Denver defenseman Will Butcher (4) during the first period of Saturday’s game against Denver at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The University of North Dakota men's hockey team is on its longest winless streak in 14 years.

In large part, special teams are to blame.

During the current six-game win drought - coming against No. 1 Denver, No. 2 Minnesota Duluth and No. 7 Minnesota - the Fighting Hawks have played dead-even with their opponents at even strength (7-7).

But UND has been outscored 11-3 on special teams, handing the Fighting Hawks an 0-4-2 record during that stretch.

Had UND played even on special teams during that span, it would have two more wins and one more tie. But it has lost the special teams battle in six of the last seven games (and tied it in the other one).

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UND hasn't won the special teams battle in a game since a 3-2 victory over Bemidji State on Oct. 20 - nearly a month ago.

Special teams could really come into focus this weekend as No. 8 UND heads to the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center to take on No. 12 St. Cloud State at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday.

The Huskies, aided by skilled players who enjoy roaming their large, Olympic ice sheet, have led the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in power play and ranked in the top five nationally in each of the last three seasons.

And on the other side, St. Cloud State doesn't give its opponents many chances with the extra man. The Huskies have finished in the top five nationally in fewest penalty minutes for five straight years.

St. Cloud State hasn't finished a season negative in special teams net since Bob Motzko became head coach 12 years ago.

The penalty kill

UND's penalty kill is converting at just 78.2 percent - ranking 51st of 60 teams nationally. UND has allowed a power-play goal in seven consecutive games.

Two weeks ago, after giving up four power-play goals in a series at Minnesota, Berry emphasized winning the initial faceoff and getting an early clear.

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That area has improved.

UND now ranks first among National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams in faceoff percentage at 53.1 percent. Tyson Jost (60.3 percent), Johnny Simonson (55.0) and Rhett Gardner (52.5) all are above 50 percent on the draw.

"We've made strides on winning faceoffs and getting clears early," Berry said. "I think that was probably the biggest detriment in not killing penalties early was not winning that first draw. At Minnesota, they were snapping the puck around, probably scoring, on the initial faceoff win.

"We've gotten better. Now, it's a matter of sustaining it through the first two minutes and finishing the kill. It seems like now, they're getting goals toward the end of kills."

UND also has emphasized mentality. The coaching staff brought rubber pucks out to practice to help players work on blocking shots.

"It's about being savage out there," UND forward Austin Poganski said. "Putting your body on the line. Blocking a shot. It's a war mentality on the PK. A few leaders have to step up and take a few shots to the body and get the guys going.

"We just have to learn it's a different mentality on the PK, not just going out there and getting the puck out of the zone. You've got to battle. You've got to put your nose down to the grindstone and get after it and battle it out. I don't think we have that mentality yet. We're working on it. We're getting closer, but once we get that, it will be a different story."

Although UND has had a poor start to the season killing penalties, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is doomed for the year.

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At Thanksgiving last season, UND's penalty kill percentage was slightly worse-77.4 percent. After Thanksgiving, UND killed 90.8 percent of opponent power plays the rest of the season-good for second nationally.

"We just have to get desperate," UND defenseman Christian Wolanin said. "Coach (Dane) Jackson does a great job putting together a good system. We just have to be desperate and grind through our PKs. We have to be harder. We have to block more shots. We have to help Cam (Johnson) out. We just really have to take a lot of pride in stopping the other team's power play."

Power play

And UND has to score when it gets chances, which could be few and far between this weekend.

"They are one team that doesn't take a lot of penalties," Berry said. "When we get a power play, it's going to mean something, whether it's one or two a game."

UND's power play has scored on seven of 51 chances this season, while giving up three shorthanded goals. Its conversion rate of 13.7 percent ranks 43rd in the country.

The Fighting Hawks have made some slight personnel adjustments on the power play in recent weeks, but Berry said it comes down to three keys: winning the initial faceoffs, puck movement and releasing shots faster.

"The biggest thing is when you snap pucks around and get that four-man box moving, that's a big deal," Berry said. "We've been static a little bit."

UND also has had too many shots blocked in the last three weekends.

""We can get it off our tape a little quicker," Berry said. "Sometimes, we get it and look for a play or look for a shot and by the time we shoot, the lane is closed. The other teams pre-scout. They know who our shooters are. They know where to be. The other thing is we're not just seeing one guy, we're seeing two guys get in the lane. Playing faster can alleviate that."

And special teams success could turn around UND's fortunes.

"There's urgency any time you play a game when you come off of a loss," Berry said. "Our group is a very upbeat group, very task orientated as far as what we have to do. Things haven't been coming easy for us now. But if we stay together, work extremely hard in practice, we're going to pull out of this."

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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