North Dakota's faceoff numbers are college hockey's best in at least six years
There were four seconds left and Brad Berry didn't have much of a choice.
UND's head coach only had one center available to take a key defensive zone draw and try to seal a one-goal victory over Western Michigan last weekend.
It was senior Johnny Simonson.
Even though Simonson, a left-handed centerman, was on his weak side in the right circle, he easily swiped a clean faceoff win to the boards to seal a UND victory.
The result didn't surprise Berry.
Faceoff wins have become common for this year's UND team.
The No. 5 Fighting Hawks enter this weekend's series against No. 2 St. Cloud State at 57 percent on faceoffs — the best mark of any college hockey team since College Hockey Inc., began tracking the stat in 2012-13.
Simonson is at 62.2 percent and Nick Jones is at 61.6 — both are on pace to break UND's school record of 60.1 set by Tyson Jost last season.
Rhett Gardner 55.3, Dixon Bowen 54.5 and Ludvig Hoff 53.1 all have been terrific, too.
Simonson, who has college hockey's best faceoff percentage of any player who has taken more than 40 draws, credited student manager Jason Ulmer with the team's success in the circle.
"He works with us on Thursdays and Fridays," Simonson said. "He'll give us a heads up on what we're going against or things he sees in us, what we need to improve, what's working, what's not working. He's really good at what he does in giving us things to think about or things to try."
Ulmer played center and was part of UND's 1997 and 2000 NCAA national championship teams. He returned to UND after retiring from pro hockey in 2016.
Faceoffs could come into focus this weekend as the nation's two best faceoff teams go head-to-head in the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Nine of the top 20 faceoff men in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will play in this series.
St. Cloud State's top guys are Judd Peterson (61.1 percent), Blake Lizotte (59.1), Blake Winiecki (57.0) and Ryan Poehling (52.1).
"I know a couple of their centermen," Simonson said. "Peterson's good. Winiecki is good. They've had other guys. St. Cloud takes pride in their faceoffs. That's a big deal for them. That's going to be a tough test this weekend. We're going to have to emphasize it."
UND has won the faceoff battle in 15 of 18 games this season, only losing on Saturday night games against St. Lawrence, Wisconsin and Denver. It has won the faceoff battle by 20-plus four times.
St. Cloud State has won the faceoff battle in 10 of 13 games this season, aiding the Huskies' third-ranked power play.
Simonson said the faceoff wins can be game-changing.
"Think about it from a shift perspective," Simonson said. "You either start with the puck or your chasing. That can waste how many seconds trying to get it back? Fifteen? Thirty? Over the course of a game or the course of a season, that's a big deal."
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FOUR PIECES OF FACEOFF ADVICE FROM JOHNNY SIMONSON
What's the key to winning draws?
Simonson: "There are a lot of different factors. You have to kind of read what the other guy is trying to do. What's his goal? What hand are you on? Timing is a big thing, too. Having good hand-eye coordination and timing that puck when it's dropped is key. The other thing is that you don't necessarily have to win it, but you can't lose it clean. You have to make it a battle, especially if you're on your weak side."
As a lefty, your strong side in the defensive zone is in the left circle. But you had to take a key draw against Western Michigan in the right circle. What was that like?
Simonson: "Obviously, that's more of a challenge. Their goal was to get it to the net. My goal was to do the opposite. I focused on timing that forehand slap to the wall and timed it pretty much perfectly and was strong enough on my stick so it went back that way. My goal was just to not let him do what he wanted to do. My goal wasn't to win it right to my defenseman's stick. My goal was to do the opposite of what he was trying to do."
What do you want your wingers to do on the draw?
Simonson: "Just get into the pile as quickly as they can and bump it back to the 'D.' My winger will know kind of the area where the puck might be in the pile, and if he can get a good jump on that, that's as good as any other won draw.
And if you lose the draw, you want to pressure the other team quickly?
Simonson: "You saw Smitty (Cole Smith) on Saturday get a really good jump on a lost draw and it ended up in the back of the net."
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This article is written by Brad Elliott Schlossman from Grand Forks Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.