How UND evolved into a good defensive team
The Fighting Hawks are 12-6-3 in their last 21 games and have lowered their goals against by more than a full goal per game.
GRAND FORKS — UND had a disastrous weekend in St. Cloud in early December.
The Fighting Hawks allowed 13 goals in 7-2 and 6-3 losses to the Huskies. They dropped to 6-8-3 overall.
Since then, they've been pretty good.
Over the last three-plus months, UND is 12-6-3 overall. That type of winning percentage in a league like the National Collegiate Hockey Conference would normally place the Fighting Hawks as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But due to the hole it dug in the first two months, UND has to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
The Fighting Hawks are two wins away from doing that.
They beat Omaha 5-2 in a decisive Game 3 Sunday in their quarterfinal series in Baxter Arena, setting up a showdown against St. Cloud State at 7:30 p.m. Friday in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. The winner will play for the NCHC title Saturday night.
"I think there's some excitement because I firmly believe our guys believe," UND coach Brad Berry said. "They believe we can have success this weekend. They believe they can work the hard way into the national tournament. We don't want to get in front of ourselves. But I like where we're at as a team."
UND's turnaround is due to massive improvements on the back end.
UND allowed 3.47 goals per game in the first 17 games this season. In the last 21, the Fighting Hawks have allowed 2.33 per game.
UND's goaltending has had a major turnaround.
After the weekend in St. Cloud, the Fighting Hawks had the worst team save percentage in the country at .861. Fifth-year senior Drew DeRidder was at .874, sophomore Jakob Hellsten .859.
Since then, UND's team save percentage is at .906.
UND has gone almost exclusively to DeRidder and his save percentage in UND's last 21 games is .916 — more than 40 points higher than his first two months on campus.
That .916 is in line with what he did at Michigan State, where he posted .923 and .918 in his last two seasons.
Down the stretch, he's been at his best. DeRidder is 6-1-2 with a 1.75 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in his last nine starts.
"Drew DeRidder is playing his best hockey right now," Berry said. "He's sharp. He's focused. He's in attack mentality in the crease and he's dialed in. That's great to see."
The turnaround in save percentage also has been due to the fact that UND has protected its goaltenders much better in the last three months.
"When we weren't playing our best hockey, it wasn't on the shoulders of Drew DeRidder," Berry said. "Yes, he's our goaltender, but it's about the five players that are playing in front of him. I felt our group was probably a bit loose in some details around him. Yes, certainly he could (have been) a little better, but the onus was on the whole team, not one player between the pipes."
The coaching staff altered its defenseman usage, giving higher minutes to those who are better in their own end.
No player has seen a bigger increase in minutes than fifth-year senior transfer Ryan Sidorski.
Sidorski, who started the year as the presumed eighth defenseman, has been elevated to the top four.
Prior to Thanksgiving, Sidorski did not play more than 20 minutes once. He's done it seven times since. Sidorski's average ice time is up 4:42 per game since than Dec. 8.
"I'll be quite honest with you," Berry said. "When he entered the transfer portal and came here, we provided an opportunity and we just said, 'Hey, you know, it probably doesn't look like a great opportunity as far as the guys coming back here, but it's all up to you and your body of work and what you do in the course of a year.'
"Well, his body of work has been outstanding. He's exponentially grown his role because of what he's done. I think if you asked him early in the season, it would probably surprise him as well. Those are the stories you love to hear. I'm telling you, it pushes your group. Guys love him in the locker room only being here one year. He's added to our group and pushed the bar each and every day, not only for himself, but our team."
UND also has heavily increased Tyler Kleven's usage. He's playing 3:39 more per game since the weekend at St. Cloud State. Ethan Frisch (2:31) and Chris Jandric (1:10) were getting big minutes in the first half, but their minutes still increased.
The bigger reliance on the top four has led to decreased minutes for UND's third pair.
Cooper Moore is down 2:34 per game and Ty Farmer is down 3:59 since Dec. 8. Sophomore Brent Johnson has been cut out of the rotation altogether. He hasn't played since that early December weekend in St. Cloud.
Luke Bast started the season injured and didn't have a large enough sample size before Dec. 8.
During UND's current 6-1-2 run, it has held opponents under 20 shots three times.
The Fighting Hawks held St. Cloud State to 13 shots on goal on Feb. 18. They held Colorado College to 18 shots on Feb. 24. And with the season on the line Sunday, UND held Omaha to just 14 shots on goal.
"That says a lot about our mentality as a group and our commitment to Drew DeRidder in net," Berry said. "He's playing an outstanding brand of hockey. He will continue to do that. The onus is on the group in front of him to play at that level."
It took until December, but UND has become the team everyone expected it to be all season.
"It's been a challenging year to say the least, but our guys embraced it," Berry said. "They were positive the whole year. There are different ways to get to the national tournament. Our guys are embracing that. Right now, we're playing our best hockey and that's the most important thing. Our group grew throughout the season, through some challenges and difficult situations, but it made us stronger."
NCHC Frozen Faceoff
Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul.
Semifinals: Colorado College vs. Denver, 4 p.m. Friday; UND vs. St. Cloud State, 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Championship: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
TV: CBS Sports Network.
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM), UND's games only.