UND's coaching staff got together after UND's crushing loss to Michigan in the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center to dissect what happened.

It would be understandable if they threw their hands up and decided it was just one of those bad-luck games and there was nothing they could do about it. After all, UND outshot the Wolverines 40-20 and completely dominated puck possession and scoring chances.

But the staff of Dave Hakstol, Dane Jackson and Cary Eades had a revelation.

"They were the first team we played that just totally packed it in," Jackson said. "They would let you go low-to-high on the cycle, then they would pack five guys around the net. We had all that zone time. Our 'D' would get it, somewhat stationary, and their shot would get blocked, because they had so many guys there. We dominated the game. We outshot them 40-20. But we didn't create as much as we should have.

"That, for me, was the turning point. That was our 'a-ha moment.' We said we've got to get personnel on the blue line that can add more offense if teams are going to shrink the zone on us like that, and we've got to teach it better."

Since then, there's been a change.

UND, long known for having a big, physical, punishing defensive core, has become college hockey's most offensive defense over the last decade.

UND's defensemen have tallied 1,052 points during the last 10 seasons, by far the most in the country. Quinnipiac is second with 964 points from its blue liners, while Boston University (930) is third, St. Cloud State (926) is fourth and Denver (919) is fifth.

Boston College (883), Notre Dame (862), Michigan (852), Minnesota Duluth (850) and Minnesota State-Mankato (841) round out the top 10.

If going by points per game, Penn State, which hasn't played at the Division-I level for the entire decade, and Harvard, which plays fewer games as an Ivy League team, would rank fifth and sixth.

UND has done it on a consistent basis, too.

The Fighting Hawks have ranked in the top five nationally in eight of the last 10 years, and have ranked in the top two nationally in six of the last 10 years.

UND has reached the 100-point mark with its defensemen in eight of the last 10 years. Only St. Cloud State (four times) has done it more than three times.

"When you look at the early 2000s, we were known to be a big, physical 'D' core that was pretty punishing," said Brad Berry, who played defense at UND in the 1980s, coached the blue liners in the 2000s and 2010s before becoming the head coach in 2015. "It was a group that was pretty hard to play against. We've transformed a little bit. We have tried not to lose that identity, but we realize the way the game of hockey has gone.

"If you look at our 'D' over the last 10 years, they're very mobile, smart, agile and make a good first pass. But their job isn't done just breaking out the puck. They have to add to the offense by joining the rush. They have to be active in the offensive zone. It's so tough to score at every level, now it's not just incumbent upon the three forwards. The 'D' have to be a part of that. We don't just ask our defensemen to be a part of that. We command them to do it. Our defensive group has taken ownership on it, while still remaining true to our identity of being hard to play against."

UND's Troy Stecher. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
UND's Troy Stecher. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A change in recruiting

It's not that UND didn't recruit shifty, offensively gifted defensemen before 2011.

There were plenty of them who came through before that, like Russ Parent in the 1980s, Curtis Murphy in the 1990s and Chay Genoway on that 2011 Frozen Four team.

But adding those types of players became a focus. They looked for players who could fake a shot and create a shooting line, guys who could join the rush and who had good offensive hockey sense.

"We started getting a few more, but not everyone," Jackson said. "It's a balance of blending skills, talents and abilities. I think every year, we've gone more and more with that. I think we also had to change how guys were hitting. When we had guys like Andrew MacWilliam, who would crush guys and physically dominate players, the game was starting to be called differently. Even if they hit a guy clean, it was being called more and more."

After Berry returned to campus in 2012, among the first wave of defensemen UND recruited were Tucker Poolman, Troy Stecher, Gage Ausmus, Hayden Shaw, Christian Wolanin and Matt Kiersted.

The first five were key players on UND's 2016 NCAA national championship-winning squad. Wolanin became the first defenseman to lead UND in scoring in roughly 30 years, while Kiersted has become one of college hockey's most coveted NHL free agents.

"Overall, as a group, we want guys who are highly competitive," Berry said. "We want guys who are very good on their feet, very agile, very mobile. . . guys who knows what the next play is, and guys who are smart with and without the puck. We've been fortunate to have some high, high-end D-men come through our program.

"But you need a little bit of everything. You can't have all defense and you can't have all offense. You need a little bit of everything. The last few years, we've had a good blend of various types of defensemen who complement each other."

Since 2011, Nick Mattson has scored more career points than any UND defenseman. Herald File Photo.
Since 2011, Nick Mattson has scored more career points than any UND defenseman. Herald File Photo.

A different coaching style

UND also began changing the way it coached its defensemen.

"We needed more motion," Jackson said.

It wasn't just about pinching in along the wall to keep a puck in the zone.

They asked the weak side defenseman to become more aggressive. They wanted blue liners slashing through the zone when forwards were circling out of the corner with the puck. They wanted better offensive zone spacing and defensemen to be available for seam passes.

They asked their defensemen to get rid of the puck faster in the offensive zone and one-time pucks more often.

"That led to us getting guys who could shoot it well, shoot it quickly, one-time the puck and have the ability to join the rush," Jackson said. "You don't get three-on-twos very often, but you can get four-on-threes. Those stem from a lot of clean breakouts. That's when you get good skate entries and a four-man attack with everybody moving.

"When you have guys who can really skate and break out pucks under heavy pressure, it's a win-win, because you're not spending much time in your zone and you get a good, clean exit."

During the last 10 years, UND has had four different people coach the defensive core -- Eades, Jackson, Berry and now Karl Goehring -- but they have kept similar philosophies. And they plan to keep them going.

"When you look at JBD (Jacob Bernard-Docker) and Matt Kiersted, some of our younger guys and guys who are coming into our program," Berry said, "there's a blend. You've got to continue to bring a cross-section of everything into your lineup."

Fighting Hawks defenseman Matt Kiersted carries the puck past Alabama-Huntsville's Liam Izyk (21) during a January home hockey game. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
Fighting Hawks defenseman Matt Kiersted carries the puck past Alabama-Huntsville's Liam Izyk (21) during a January home hockey game. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks HeraldNick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Defenseman points in last 10 years

1,051 -- North Dakota

964 -- Quinnipiac

930 -- Boston University

926 -- St. Cloud State

919 -- Denver

883 -- Boston College

862 -- Notre Dame

852 -- Michigan

850 -- Minnesota Duluth

841 -- MSU-Mankato

840 -- RIT

838 -- Minnesota

830 -- Air Force

820 -- Mercyhurst

817 -- UMass Lowell

Defensemen points per game in last 10 years

2.61 -- North Dakota

2.45 -- Quinnipiac

2.43 -- Boston University

2.39 -- St. Cloud State

2.30 -- Penn State

2.30 -- Harvard

2.26 -- Boston College

2.25 -- Denver

2.23 -- Michigan

2.22 -- RIT

2.16 -- Minnesota

2.15 -- Notre Dame

2.14 -- UMass Lowell

2.14 -- Air Force

2.13 -- Mercyhurst

Number of times with 100 points from defensemen

8 -- North Dakota

4 -- St. Cloud State

3 -- Quinnipiac

3 -- Boston University

3 -- Penn State

3 -- Denver

3 -- Michigan

3 -- Minnesota

3 -- Minnesota Duluth

UND's national rank in D-man scoring by season

2010-11: 2nd. Top scorer: Chay Genoway (37 points).

2011-12: 5th. Top scorer: Ben Blood (21).

2012-13: 2nd. Top scorer: Dillon Simpson (24).

2013-14: 1st. Top scorer: Jordan Schmaltz (24).

2014-15: 1st. Top scorer: Jordan Schmaltz (28).

2015-16: 4th. Top scorer: Troy Stecher (29).

2016-17: 19th. Top scorer: Tucker Poolman (30).

2017-18: 2nd. Top scorer: Christian Wolanin (35).

2018-19: 26th. Top scorer: Matt Kiersted (18).

2019-20: 2nd. Top scorer: Matt Kiersted (29).