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Despite losing top three centers, UND again among college hockey's top faceoff teams

Volunteer assistant coach Jason Ulmer is known for his work in the dot with Fighting Hawks centers.

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UND forward Louis Jamernik (27) and St. Cloud State's Jami Krannila (13) face off at center ice in the first period of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

UND's top three centers signed NHL contracts after last season.

Collin Adams signed with the New York Islanders, Shane Pinto signed with the Ottawa Senators and Jasper Weatherby signed with the San Jose Sharks.

That trio took 85.2 percent of draws for UND, which finished first nationally in faceoff winning percentage for the third time in four years.

It left big questions for this year's team: Who will take the important defensive zone draws? Can faceoffs continue to be a strength for a program that values puck possession?

Thanks to a key pickup in the transfer portal over the summer and the continued work of volunteer coach Jason Ulmer, UND is back again among college hockey's top teams in the dot, despite the significant turnover.

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UND enters this weekend's series against St. Cloud State (7:30 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday) ranked first in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and fifth in the nation in faceoff winning percentage.

Connor Ford, a fifth-year senior transfer from Bowling Green, has won more faceoffs than any player in the country (214), while Ulmer has helped bring UND's younger centermen like Jake Schmaltz and Louis Jamernik up to speed.

"We lost a lot," UND coach Brad Berry said of last year's centers. "Those are three very good centermen who took a ton of draws for us. But you've got to remember, those guys were young at one time, too. Collin Adams and Jasper Weatherby might not have been the most proficient in the dot early on, but eventually, working with Ulms and getting more experienced and getting stronger, there was a maturation process."

Last season, Ford finished second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in faceoff wins (354) and fourth in faceoff percentage (60.9 percent).

This season, he's at 63.9 percent, which is on pace to break Rhett Gardner's school record of 62.3 percent (the stat has been kept since 2003-04).

"I've gotten better as my years have gone on in college hockey, but Ulms has definitely helped out a lot," Ford said. "He's a really smart guy, really sharp. That's been the difference for me is the pre-scout aspect that I didn't necessarily have the last four years of taking time with Ulmer to sit down and pick the opponent apart and put a game plan together."

During UND's 3-2 win over rival Minnesota on Saturday, Ford's dominance in the circle played a big role in UND's puck-possession advantage. Ford went 19-4 in his 23 draws.

"It's a big part of my game," Ford said. "I knew they were going to use it. With Jasper Weatherby leaving, it left me alone at the helm taking faceoffs. If there are D-zone faceoffs, coach gives me a kick on the butt and says, 'I need one here.' It doesn't matter how tired I am, I'm going. It's a lot but I'm never going to complain about being out there."

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Schmaltz, UND's second-line center, also is learning from Ulmer, who won two NCAA national championships at UND before embarking on a 15-year professional career.

"I used to go into faceoffs, and I wouldn't think about much," Schmaltz said. "I'd look at what hand they are and things like that, but for (Ulmer), he focuses on footwork and where your stick should go and little things like that, that can give you an advantage."

Last week, Schmaltz started shaking his stick while going into the circle.

"Ulms was saying he used to do that," Schmaltz said. "That's just trying to keep me on my toes and be ready for when the ref drops the puck. It kind of worked (last) weekend, so I'll probably stick with it, but my friends were giving me crap for it."

Schmaltz also said he's learning from Ford.

"He's just so strong and smart," Schmaltz said. "When I go against him in practice, I feel like he's doing one thing, then he'll lift his stick and swipe it back. He's smart. He's strong. He's been doing it for a while. He has really good footwork. He's good at all these little things that help him win draws. I'm glad I'm not going against him and he's winning them for us.

"He tries to teach me all these things. I'm trying to soak it all in. The more I watch him, the more I can learn and the better I can get at faceoffs."

The guys who have gone on to the pros are doing well, too.

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Weatherby, who spent three years at UND working with Ulmer, currently ranks second in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage among rookies.

"Jason has a way about him that he can connect with players," Berry said. "When things go great, it's fun, but when they're losing a few draws, he throws some different nuances about trying to win draws. Faceoffs are a big deal. It's obviously a physical thing, but it's also a mental thing. He does a really good job communicating and connecting with our centermen."

UND's national rank in faceoffs

2021-22: 5th (54.7)*

2020-21: 1st (56.2)

2019-20: 6th (54.1)

2018-19: 1st (57.1)

2017-18: 1st (55.5)

2016-17: 8th (53.7)

*Through Dec. 1, 2021.

No. 7 UND at No. 5 St. Cloud State

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.

TV: Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD).

Stream: NCHC.tv.

Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).

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