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In season of slim margins, two blown leads loom large

UND's season could look a lot different if it closed out a pair of three-goal leads.

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UND defenseman Ty Farmer (3) gets low to stop a point-blank Broncos shot from Western Michigan forward Jack Perbix (25) in the second period of an NCHC men's hockey matchup at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks on Saturday, January 14, 2023.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — During the past four years, UND took leads into the third period 75 times.

It went 71-2-2 in those games.

This season, UND has had 11 leads during the second intermission.

It is 10-3-1 in those games.

Despite all of the challenges UND has had keeping the puck out of its own net this season, the Fighting Hawks would be in a completely different spot had they just closed out two games where they held three-goal leads.

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UND led St. Cloud State 3-0 in December in St. Cloud. It led Western Michigan 5-2 on Saturday night in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

But a barrage of goals came the other way at the end of the second period and in the third as the Huskies and Broncos rallied for victories.

Had UND finished off those two games, it would be just three points back of Omaha for second in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings. As it stands, the Fighting Hawks will enter this weekend's series against Minnesota Duluth in seventh.

Had UND finished off those two games, it would be No. 11 in the Pairwise Rankings — in terrific position to be in Fargo for the NCAA regionals in March. As it stands, the Fighting Hawks are No. 23 and face a daunting task — winning roughly nine of the final 12 regular-season games — to be in that position.

It's true that every team in the country can play the what-if game, changing just a couple of results, but it highlights how costly those lost leads were in the big picture.

"I think it's just mental toughness," UND alternate captain Ethan Frisch said. "It's having the confidence to have the ability to make plays in our structure and our systems — the stuff we do day in and day out in practice. It's no secret.

"We've got to know we're still great players, even in those panic situations."

UND a shocking outlier

One advanced analytic used by teams today is expected goals (xG).

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A computer program tracks the location of every shot attempt in a game and the type of shot (wrist, slap, backhand, tip). It gives it a value of the chance it has to go in. At the end of the game, it adds up the value of every shot from each team and kicks out an estimated score.

The statistic continues to show UND is a shocking outlier this season.

If you go through the xG of every game for each team, the metric predicts over half of the NCHC teams' record to almost exact precision — Denver (18-6 projected, 19-5 reality), Western Michigan (15-9 projected, 14-9-1 reality), Colorado College (10-12 projected, 10-11-1 reality), Minnesota Duluth (10-12 projected, 9-12-1 reality), Miami (7-15 projected, 7-13-2 reality).

And then there's UND.

Based on location of shot attempts for UND vs. its opponents, it thinks the Fighting Hawks should be 19-4. Reality is 9-10-4.

It is, by far, the biggest differential of any team in the league and perhaps any team in the country.

St. Cloud State's projected record is 11-11. Reality is 16-6.

The Huskies also have the No. 1-ranked team save percentage in the country, so goaltenders Jaxon Castor and Dominic Basse are likely pushing the Huskies beyond where they'd be with average goaltending.

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UND, meanwhile, is still searching for consistent goaltending.

It tried third-string goalie Kaleb Johnson on Saturday night against Western Michigan, marking the first time UND has given three different goalies a start in a season since 2016-17, when Cam Johnson started 37, Matt Hrynkiw two and Matej Tomek one.

The xG metric projects UND should be allowing 2.7 goals per game, which would put the Fighting Hawks in a nine-way tie for 21st nationally. In reality, they're 47th, allowing 3.3 per game with a team save percentage of .867.

Strathmann, Emerson play in All-American Game

UND will begin ironing out its freshman class for next season in a couple months.

But two players who are expected to arrive on campus in the fall played in the BioSteel All-American Game on Wednesday afternoon in Plymouth, Mich.

Defenseman Andrew Strathmann and forward Michael Emerson were teammates in the game, which features top American NHL Draft-eligible players from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and the United States Hockey League.

Emerson, who plays for the Chicago Steel, made a backdoor setup for a goal and played well in his role as a power forward with good speed

Strathmann, who plays for the Youngstown Phantoms, quarterbacked his team's power play from the top of the zone and earned a comparison to Colorado Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews from analyst Craig Button.

Johnson, Adams play in ECHL All-Star Game

Former UND players Cam Johnson and Collin Adams both suited up in the ECHL All-Star Game on Monday in Norfolk, Va.

They were teammates on the Eastern Conference All-Stars.

Adams scored a goal in the three-on-three event, while Johnson served as his team's lone netminder.

"It's cool," Johnson said during an interview on NHL Network. "This is a special time. It's nice to have that little feather in the cap of being an all-star. We have a great group of guys here. It's been a lot of fun."

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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