UND’s faceoff success has been a solid predictor of the team’s fortunes
GRAND FORKS — The most important faceoffs of the University of North Dakota’s 2016 NCAA national championship season were taken by a freshman.
Holding a one-goal lead over rival Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals, coach Brad Berry called on rookie Rhett Gardner to take back-to-back defensive-zone draws in the final 40 seconds.
Gardner won the second one and followed it up by scoring the empty-netter to secure the trip to the national title game.
Gardner was good at faceoffs at that point, but he was just getting started.
It wasn’t until that first season at UND that Gardner fully began to understand the importance of draws, in part thanks to Fighting Hawks veteran center Luke Johnson.
“Luke was really good,” Gardner said. “He kind of made me realize how big of a detail it is. I was always good at it, but I didn’t realize how important it’s been. In hockey everywhere, faceoffs have become a really big deal in the last five years.
“I probably take faceoffs way differently now than I did coming in as a freshman, just kind of picking up little details from other guys and seeing what works for them.”
Gardner has gradually improved each season from winning 52.9 percent of faceoffs as a freshman to 53.2 as a sophomore to 58.6 as a junior.
Now a senior, Gardner is on pace to shatter UND’s single-season record in faceoff percentage. He’s currently at 64.3 percent, which is far ahead of the current record of 60.1 held by Tyson Jost (2016-17).
Gardner ranks first nationally in total faceoff wins — by far. He will enter this weekend’s series against St. Cloud State (7:37 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, at Ralph Engelstad Arena) with 359 wins. Lake Superior State’s Diego Cuglietta is second with 322. The only other person with more than 300 wins is MSU-Mankato’s Marc Michaelis at 303.
“Faceoffs are always a big part of my game,” Gardner said. “I always thought that if you lose the draw, you start the first 5-10 seconds without the puck. It’s a big thing. In the D-zone, draws are huge. On the penalty kill against a good power-play team like St. Cloud, it’s going to be massive.”
Gardner and UND will be in for one of their biggest challenges of the season this weekend — both on the scoreboard and in the faceoff dot.
One year after the Fighting Hawks and Huskies finished 1-2 nationally in faceoffs, they come into this weekend ranked 1-4 nationally. UND is first at 58.5 percent, St. Cloud State is fourth at 55.1 percent.
Gardner and St. Cloud State’s Blake Lizotte (62.7 percent) rank 1-2 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference among players who have taken more than 75 draws this season.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Gardner said. “Lizotte is probably their top guy. We’ve watched some video this week. We always watch video on their guys, but we definitely had a more detailed one this week. I think the big thing with them is that they really have good winger help. We’ve worked on that in the last couple years since we’ve noticed that’s what helps them a lot. The centers need to be on their toes, but the wings need to be on their toes, too.”
Berry said: “It’s key when you look at the skill level on that team. It’s key to making sure we have the puck and make them expend energy to get it back. They’ve got some good faceoff men with Lizotte and (Ryan) Poehling. We have some good faceoff people, too. It’s going to be key this weekend, starting with possession. And it’s not just the centermen. It’s the wingers having the mentality of jumping in and digging in and getting pucks back.”
Faceoffs a predictor
UND’s faceoff statistics have actually been a more accurate predictor this season of whether the team will win games than shots on goal.
When UND wins the faceoff battle by 10-plus, it is 9-3-1. When it doesn’t, it is 3-7. And when it loses the faceoff battle, it is 0-4.
Last weekend’s series at Omaha was an example. UND won the faceoff battle 54-19 in Friday night’s victory and dominated scoring chances. It lost the battle 35-31 on Saturday and lost the game.
“If you look back at the better games we’ve played this year, we’re starting really well in the faceoff circle,” Gardner said. “Brad always says it’s the first battle every shift.”