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UND hockey notebook: Fighting Hawks look to shore up defensive zone

After Saturday's loss to Denver, UND's practices have been centered around winning puck battles and advancing pucks.

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Denver forward Aidan Thompson (7) earns a penalty shoving UND's Nick Portz (20) from behind in the first period of an NCHC men's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks on Saturday, November 12, 2022.
Nick Nelson / UND Athletics
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GRAND FORKS — Brad Berry took a few days to dissect UND's 6-3 loss to Denver on Saturday night in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The UND coach came back to a couple of points on why UND struggled to break pucks out of its defensive zone in that game.

No. 1: UND wasn't tenacious enough on 50-50 pucks battles.

According to InStat, which attempts to track puck battles won, UND has ended up on the wrong side of that category in eight of 11 games this season (albeit narrowly, 51 percent to 49 percent, in three of them).

"I think those 50-50 puck battles, which give you an opportunity to retain the puck instead of playing defense, is a big deal for us," Berry said. "I thought we had that in Omaha. I thought we did that at a consistent level both nights in Omaha. Then, I thought we backed off that against Denver.

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"Denver is a good checking team and they've got some skill to them, but when you come out of a battle, and you don't have the puck, then you're playing defense and giving the puck to a very good team. I think, collectively, as a group, it's about having that edge, playing assertive and making sure we stay on battles and we're coming out with those pucks."

No. 2: UND needs to do a better job of puck support.

There were times against Denver when the Fighting Hawks got outnumbered during puck battles and lost them. Other times, players were forced to chip pucks to the neutral zone because they had no other options.

"If you get pucks in the corner, you've got to have help," Berry said. "You've got to have another guy around it and you have to have a third guy above it. Those situations where you always have the points of pressure, (which causes) the other team to turn over pucks and then you get it back. That's the cohesiveness of working together, whether it's the defensive zone — which we were working on today — or the offensive zone, too, as far as our forecheck. You've got to be working together. It starts with the intensity of those puck battles."

UND spent extra time in practice this week trying to clean up those areas.

"It all starts in the D-zone for us," defenseman Chris Jandric said. "We've been working on the D-zone here, shutting down plays, cycling pucks and then we can transition over to the neutral zone, and get pucks there. Then, we have to establish a little bit of a forecheck. That's what we've been doing this week in practice, trying to work with our intensity, slow that cycle in the D-zone and then trying to make some offensive plays as well."

UND is aiming to be better in those areas for this weekend's series against Miami in Ralph Engelstad Arena (7:07 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday). The Fighting Hawks are trying to dig out of a three-game winless streak.

"I don't think anyone's more hungry than we are," UND alternate captain Gavin Hain said.

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Recruits sign LOIs

The signing period has opened and some UND committed recruits have started returning National Letters of Intent.

UND often does not announce its signings until the spring when it reveals its incoming freshman class, but the players' junior teams will publicize them.

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Among the players who have signed are forward Cody Croal of the Muskegon Lumberjacks, forward Jayden Perron of the Chicago Steel, defenseman Andrew Strathmann of the Youngstown Phantoms and defenseman Jake Livanavage of the Chicago Steel.

Signing a National Letter of Intent prevents other programs from contacting the players. It does not necessarily mean the players will come to school next season. Croal, for example, is expected to return to juniors.

Strathmann and Livanavage, who will both likely be on campus next fall, have been named to USA's World Junior A Challenge squad. They'll play in Cornwall, Ont., from Dec. 11-18. Moorhead's Gavin Lindberg, a Colorado College recruit, also made the team.

Former UND captain Matt Smaby, now the head coach of the Waterloo Black Hawks, will serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. team in Cornwall.

There will be five teams competing in the event — the U.S., Canada West, Canada East, Sweden and Latvia.

Briefly

Former UND and Thief River Falls goalie Zane McIntyre has been called up to the Minnesota Wild due to an injury to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. . . Former UND center Nick Schmaltz, who has been injured, returned to practice Wednesday for the Arizona Coyotes.

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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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