College men's hockey: Krieger continues to turn around Bulldogs' faceoff fortunes
Every year when it comes time to play the NHL's playoff bracket challenge, Minnesota Duluth senior wing Billy Exell finds himself getting beat by former Bulldogs defenseman Neal Pionk.
It's Pionk's strategy, Exell said. Like the game of hockey, the Hermantown native centers his picks around the faceoff.
"He's always looking at who is winning faceoffs. That's who he's picking," Exell said. "Good teams have the puck and when you win faceoffs, it makes a huge difference in the game."
The Bulldogs learned the importance of winning faceoffs two weeks ago in their 4-3 overtime win at Denver, with two third-period faceoff wins leading to goals, including the game-tying goal that came with 1.8 seconds left in regulation.
The game-tying faceoff win came from senior center Peter Krieger, whose .590 faceoff percentage leads second-ranked UMD going into this weekend's NCHC series against No. 15 North Dakota. Puck drop is at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
The Fighting Hawks boast a .573 team faceoff percentage that ranks first in the NCHC and third nationally. Much of that success is due to senior center Rhett Gardner's prowess in the faceoff circle. With a 207-101 record in faceoffs this season, his .673 faceoff percentage is tops in the NCHC and third in the nation.
UMD as a team is at .524 percent, good for sixth in the NCHC and 21st nationally.
"Obviously against Denver there were two key faceoff wins that led to goals. I'd like to see more of that. Those were two big ones," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "I like where we are at with faceoffs. Hopefully we're good this weekend because we're going to get challenged."
Sandelin hasn't always liked where his team was at with faceoffs. It was his least favorite subject to discuss in previous seasons and understandably so. The Bulldogs have finished sixth or lower in the NCHC in faceoff percentage all four years and were under .500 in faceoffs the first three seasons of the league.
Last year — Krieger's first with the Bulldogs after transferring in from Alaska-Anchorage in 2016 — UMD finally won more faceoffs than it lost (1,304-1,301, .501) and had more than one centerman finish above .500 in faceoffs. Krieger finished at .560 while rookie Justin Richards finished .536.
Both are above .500 this year — Richards is .560 — as are rotating fourth-line centers Jade Miller (.535) and Jesse Jacques (.583).
"We've been better," Sandelin said of his team on faceoffs. "A couple guys have been good, but we're going to go up against the best centerman in the country in Rhett Gardner. He's over 60 percent and has won over 200 draws. We're going up against probably one of the best faceoff teams in the country. They take a lot of pride in it."
UMD has its centers studying film of North Dakota's centermen — minus Nick Jones, who's been ruled out this week — which is something Krieger does each and every week no matter the opponent.
According to Sandelin and UMD senior wing and captain Parker Mackay, the time Krieger puts in on and off the ice is what makes him so strong on faceoffs.
"Pete, he works hard," Mackay said. "He works at that stuff. He was working on it (this week). He shows up to the rink with the right mentality. That's good to see him, especially when games get down to it, win those tight faceoffs because you know the work he puts in to do so. That's why coach trusts to put him in those positions."
While Krieger has helped turn around the Bulldogs' fortune in the faceoff circle, UMD has reversed the course of Krieger's hockey career.
A two-time Class A state champion with the St. Thomas Academy Cadets in 2011 and 2012, the now 24-year-old Krieger initially landed at Alaska-Fairbanks after two seasons of junior hockey. The Nanooks moved the natural center to wing, and that in part caused Krieger to push the pause button on his hockey career after two seasons in Fairbanks.
He transferred to UMD after 2015-16 and, per NCAA rules, sat out all of 2016-17 when the Bulldogs made their run to the NCAA Frozen Four and national championship game at United Center in Chicago.
Back on the ice last season — with a surgically repaired shoulder, too — Krieger stepped into the top-line center role that had been vacated twice in the offseason by a graduation and then an early departure. He gave the team a boost in the faceoff circle and produced offensively with 11 goals and 19 assists.
He won an NCAA championship at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to go along with the two high school state titles he won in the same building. He returned to Xcel later in the summer for a sneak peek at the Minnesota Wild prospect camp, this after taking part in the Tampa Bay Lightning's camp.
Growing up in Oakdale, Minn., Krieger said the move to Duluth has been special considering how everything has worked out.
"Looking back, it seems like that was 10 years ago when I decided to transfer, but it was the best decision of my life," he said. "I always wanted to do my best and help the team win in any way that I can, so I think giving myself that fresh start and coming to UMD was just a dream come true."
NO. 15 NORTH DAKOTA (7-5-1) AT NO. 2 UMD (9-2-1)
What: NCHC series
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday/Saturday
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: Fox Sports North-Plus Friday/My9 Saturday
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9
Internet: nchc.tv (video)