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Faceoffs to be key for UND this weekend at St. Cloud State

Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Miska (35) covers up the puck near Rhett Gardner (22) of North Dakota during the game on Friday, Oct. 28, 2017, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — There were four seconds left and Brad Berry didn't have much of a choice.

UND's head coach only had one center available to take a key defensive zone draw and try to seal a one-goal victory over Western Michigan last weekend.

It was senior Johnny Simonson.

Even though Simonson, a left-handed centerman, was on his weak side in the right circle, he easily swiped a clean faceoff win to the boards to seal a UND victory.

The result didn't surprise Berry.

Faceoff wins have become common for this year's UND team.

The No. 5 Fighting Hawks enter this weekend's series against No. 2 St. Cloud State at 57 percent on faceoffs — the best mark of any college hockey team since College Hockey Inc., began tracking the stat in 2012-13.

Simonson is at 62.2 percent and Nick Jones is at 61.6 — both are on pace to break UND's school record of 60.1 set by Tyson Jost last season.

Rhett Gardner 55.3, Dixon Bowen 54.5 and Ludvig Hoff 53.1 all have been terrific, too.

Simonson, who has college hockey's best faceoff percentage of any player who has taken more than 40 draws, credited student manager Jason Ulmer with the team's success in the circle.

"He works with us on Thursdays and Fridays," Simonson said. "He'll give us a heads up on what we're going against or things he sees in us, what we need to improve, what's working, what's not working. He's really good at what he does in giving us things to think about or things to try."

Ulmer played center and was part of UND's 1997 and 2000 NCAA national championship teams.

Faceoffs could come into focus this weekend as the nation's two best faceoff teams go head-to-head in the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

Nine of the top 20 faceoff men in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will play in this series.

St. Cloud State's top guys are Judd Peterson (61.1 percent), Blake Lizotte (59.1), Blake Winiecki (57.0) and Ryan Poehling (52.1).

"I know a couple of their centermen," Simonson said. "Peterson's good. Winiecki is good. They've had other guys. St. Cloud takes pride in their faceoffs. That's a big deal for them. That's going to be a tough test this weekend. We're going to have to emphasize it."

UND has won the faceoff battle in 15 of 18 games this season, only losing on Saturday-night games against St. Lawrence, Wisconsin and Denver. It has won the faceoff battle by 20-plus four times.

St. Cloud State has won the faceoff battle in 10 of 13 games this season, aiding the Huskies' third-ranked power play.

Simonson said the faceoff wins can be game-changing.

"Think about it from a shift perspective," Simonson said. "You either start with the puck or your chasing. That can waste how many seconds trying to get it back? Fifteen? Thirty? Over the course of a game or the course of a season, that's a big deal."

College hockey's best faceoff teams

Since 2012-13 season

57.0 — North Dakota, 2017-18

56.6 — Union, 2015-16

55.6 — Minnesota, 2014-15

55.5 — Minnesota, 2015-16

55.4 — Clarkson, 2013-14

55.3 — St. Cloud State, 2017-18

55.3 — UConn, 2017-18

55.1 — Boston College, 2015-16

55.0 — Quinnipiac, 2013-14

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He 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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