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UND hammers special teams in practice ahead of series vs. No. 4 Denver

University of North Dakota's Johnny Simonson (10) fights for the puck sandwiched between University of Denver's Colin Staub (24) and Evan Janssen (26) during a game last season in Grand Forks. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS—The University of North Dakota men's hockey team returned home from Duluth at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan 21.

A few hours later, the coaching staff was back in the office, going through video of the team's two losses at the University of Minnesota Duluth and putting together a fairly predictable practice agenda for the week.

Monday: special teams.

Tuesday: special teams.

Wednesday: special teams.

Thursday: special teams.

After giving up six power-play goals on the weekend (a seventh was scored just seconds after a power play expired) and scoring just one itself, UND was working to correct its flaws before the best special teams squad in the nation, University of Denver, comes to Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:37 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26 and 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27).

"It was a focus of our meetings coming into Monday morning right away," UND coach Brad Berry said. "We were here all day Sunday before the players got here Monday morning. As soon as they got here, we got into the meetings as far as special teams being a big part of our success going down the road. We worked on it each day, all four days, digging into what we have to do."

UND's power play (19.3 percent) ranks seventh of eight teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and 30th of 60 teams nationally.

The concerning part is that the top power-play point producers have been defenseman Christian Wolanin (10 points), center Rhett Gardner (seven), defenseman Gabe Bast (five) and center Nick Jones (five)—and Gardner, Bast and Jones are all questionable for the weekend series.

The Fighting Hawks may not get many chances, either. Denver ranks dead last in college hockey in penalty minutes per game, and its penalty kill is top 10.

"We went over a lot of video," UND defenseman Colton Poolman said. "Talked about the power play a lot. It's been a pretty big factor in this week's lesson, if you want to say that. We're going to continue working on it, hopefully make some adjustments and hopefully things work out."

The penalty kill has been an even larger concern.

In mid-November, UND had the nation's No. 2-ranked penalty kill at 95.8 percent. Then, the Fighting Hawks traveled to Denver for a two-game series, and things haven't been the same since.

Now,, the Fighting Hawks rank No. 59 of 60 college hockey teams in penalty killing at 69.5 percent. That was highlighted last weekend as UND gave up three power-play goals each night in losing at Minnesota Duluth.

"I think a lot of it is just structuring and walking through what our structure is," UND senior Johnny Simonson said. "Refreshing on pretty much all situations on those penalty kills and power plays. This week, we really simplified it down to different situations, making sure everybody—defense or forward—knows exactly what's expected of them and what their job is."

During the November series between Denver and UND—the last two NCAA national champions—the Pioneers went 5-for-12 on the power play in getting a split.

The top unit features several of college hockey's best players—Hobey Baker Award candidate Henrik Borgstrom, U.S. Olympian Troy Terry, San Jose Sharks pick Dylan Gambrell, Frozen Four hat trick scorer Jarid Lukosevicius and Chicago Blackhawks pick Ian Mitchell. They combined for 11 points on the power play alone in the first meeting with UND.

The Fighting Hawks didn't do themselves any favors, giving the Pioneers eight power plays in one game alone.

Denver is plus-20 in special teams goals this season—the best number in college hockey. The next closest NCHC team is St. Cloud State University at plus-9.

"They're going to make their plays," Poolman said. "We can't try and trigger all the time. You've got to respect that they can make passes under sticks. We have to give them a little respect. It's about being focused, and for us, that starts with not taking eight penalties. If we give up eight power plays, it's probably not going to be a good thing. We have to limit our penalties first and foremost."

Berry said his team can improve both in the neutral zone, disrupting opponent zone entries, as well as in the defensive zone, getting clears when an opportunity is there.

"Winning that face off is so critical on the kill," Berry said. "You have a chance to get that on your team and clear. When you do get it on your team, you've got to clear it out. Our struggles have been not getting the puck out a couple times and them getting an extra look in the zone. Now, I think a little bit is in the neutral zone. When teams are coming up the ice, we have to make sure we're taking away time and space and we're a little tighter in the neutral zone."

Berry said Minnesota Duluth's last three games are a perfect example of the important role of special teams.

The Bulldogs scored six power-play goals against UND and swept. On Tuesday, they didn't score on the power play against Minnesota State University Mankato, and the Bulldogs were shut out.

"That's what it's coming down to at this time of year," Berry said. "Five-on-five, everybody is good. It's tough to score goals there. You have to find ways to squeeze one out on the power play and find a way to extinguish them on the penalty kill. It's been talked about and it's been worked on every single day."

UND is promoting a green out for Friday's game, asking fans to wear green for the series opener. The Fighting Hawks also will be wearing their traditional road green uniforms for the series opener instead of their regular home white jerseys.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 14th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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