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UND defenseman Paul LaDue looks for a rebound to get a shot off against Vermont goalie Mike Santaguida on Saturday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena. John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald

MEN'S HOCKEY: Young defense becomes one of UND's biggest strengths

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His first shift was not pretty.

On the bench, assistant coach Brad Berry wasn’t too worried.

“Those are the shifts that you don’t want to start a game with,” said Berry, who works primarily with the defensemen. “But our message to them is that you’re never going to get chastised for working hard and making a mistake. It’s all about not dwelling on it and moving forward. These guys have done a pretty good job of that.”

Berry’s patient attitude and his constant teaching have helped develop a young defensive corps and turn it into a strength as UND heads to the NCAA Frozen Four next week in Philadelphia.

There have been plenty of growing pains this season as UND has given four freshmen and one sophomore considerable playing time, but that crew has turned into one of the biggest reasons why UND has reached college hockey’s biggest stage.

“Each one of those guys had a different path coming in,” Berry said. “Some of them were older guys. Some of them were younger guys. But the one common denominator between them is how much they invest in their games.

“They are very hard working guys that want to be players. Individually, they have invested a lot in their games. When you do that, development comes at a quicker pace than normal.”

Their development has showed up in the stats.

In the first 15 games of the season, UND allowed an average of 32.8 shots per game, ranking 43rd in the nation. Since then, UND has allowed 26.7 shots per game, ranking ninth nationally.

A major reason for that has been UND’s improved ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Offensively, UND’s defensive corps leads the nation with 113 points and a 2.76 point-per game average.

Four defensemen — Dillon Simpson, Nick Mattson, Jordan Schmaltz and Paul LaDue — have reached the 20-point mark. The last time UND had four 20-point scorers from the blue line was 1989-90, when Dave Hakstol was a freshman.

“I think the game has changed a little bit,” Berry said. “The game has gotten a lot more offensive and you need puck movers for defensemen now. I remember back when we had Greenie (Matt Greene) and Jonesy (Matt Jones) and those guys, it was one dimensional. You have to be a little bit of each now, kind of a hybrid. You can’t be totally one or totally the other. And I think every one of our guys have those capabilities.”

Berry points to Simpson as a great example.

The team captain led all National Collegiate Hockey Conference defensemen in league scoring this season with 19 points in 24 conference games.

On the other end of the ice, Simpson leads the nation in blocked shots with 107. The next closest Frozen Four participant is Boston College blue liner Steven Santini with 62.

“Dillon brings a little bit of each,” Berry said. “He can be that offensive guy or he can be that shutdown guy. You have to have that good, baseline game. I don’t care how offensive you are, you have to have that good baseline game in your own end of the rink to be a good player.”

The players say that Berry, who coached NHL defensemen with the Columbus Blue Jackets before returning to UND, has played a major role in the development of the young players.

He will pick out small portions of the game and work on it in a one-on-one environment with the blue liners.

One week, he had the defensemen practice picking pucks out of midair at the defensive blue line when opponents try to dump and change. Later that weekend, Mattson intercepted a pass on the same play and started an odd-man rush the other way.

“When you get back to the bench, he’s all fired up,” Mattson said. “Those are some of the little things that maybe the casual fan doesn’t notice, but it makes a huge difference in the game.

“He knows a ton. He’s been through it all. He’s more of a players’ coach. He’s good at relating to us. He’s good at pointing out tiny details. He has an eye for some things that other guys don’t.”

And heading to Philadelphia, UND’s young defensive corps has grown up.

“He’s always been positive with us,” Simpson said of Berry. “And he’s always pushed us to get better. We’ve been privileged to have him on the back end this year.”

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