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Tough on the table and the ice

There wasn't any luck involved last weekend when Darcy Zajac intercepted three passes by batting pucks out of mid-air. His hand-eye coordination is a carefully crafted skill that he works on every day before practice -- by playing ping pong. UND'...

There wasn't any luck involved last weekend when Darcy Zajac intercepted three passes by batting pucks out of mid-air.

His hand-eye coordination is a carefully crafted skill that he works on every day before practice -- by playing ping pong.

UND's two senior alternate captains, Zajac and Chris VandeVelde, are well known around the locker room for their intense, daily ping pong battles in the player's lounge of Ralph Engelstad Arena.

When the table arrived two years ago, several players joined in on the competition. Now, they pretty much leave it for those two seniors.

"I don't even go in there," Mario Lamoureux said.

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"I ask them every day who wins and they both have the same answer -- me," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "I'm not sure whose skills are paramount on our ping pong table."

One thing that is for sure is that Zajac has become increasingly more difficult to play against -- both on the ping pong table and on the ice rink.

No longer does VandeVelde beat him at will, something Zajac sheepishly admits happened last season. And no longer is Zajac strictly a role player for the No. 3 Sioux.

The senior forward is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points, all while being one of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's best defensive forwards. There is no postseason award for that role, like the NHL's Selke Trophy, but if there was, Zajac would have to be in the mix.

"That would be a good discussion, for sure," Hakstol said, "with the way Darcy is playing this year. No question, he's one of the top two-way forwards in the country. He's always been a good defensive player. He's always taken pride in that side of his game.

"I think he's always believed that he can add some offense and he's certainly doing that in the last half of his career here. . . and without a doubt he's doing it this year."

Zajac, who has four goals and 10 points, ranks first on the Sioux and second among WCHA forwards with a plus-minus rating of plus-9. Only Wisconsin's Aaron Bendickson (plus-12) has a better mark.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound forward is winning 54.3 percent of his faceoffs and his goals always have been a good omen for the Sioux. During his career, UND is 16-1-2 when Zajac scores.

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"He's consistent every game," said Lamoureux, who plays on Zajac's left wing. "He doesn't have off nights. Some nights are a little sharper than others, but he comes to compete every night. Every shift he wants to accomplish something. His compete level every time he's on the ice makes him tough to play against."

Hakstol also said that opponents have a tough time taking the puck from Zajac.

"He protects the puck well," Hakstol said. "That's an area of the game that he's really seen progress over the last couple of years. That's a real area of strength that he's developed and worked really hard at. He uses it to his advantage very well.

"He's grinding down low very well and just doing a real good job in all aspects of the game. Of course, he is one of our captains and leaders here and he's doing a nice job in that area, too."

Zajac was the only senior on the ice during last Saturday's overtime loss at Minnesota-Duluth. His fellow seniors, VandeVelde and Chay Genoway, were both out with injuries. With or without his classmates, Hakstol says that Zajac is looked upon to be a leader through his professional approach and his work ethic.

"He's a guy that's taken advantage of the facilities here," Hakstol says, "as well as any player we've seen."

That includes the weight room, the extra ice time. . . and the ping pong table.

Reach Schlossman at (701) 780-1129; (800) 477-6572, ext. 129; or send e-mail to bschlossman@gfherald.com .

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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