DULUTH, Minn. -- Everything came so easy to the University of North Dakota in the first half of the season.
When it needed to lock down a lead, it almost always did.
When it needed a clutch goal to complete a comeback, it so often got it.
When it needed an overtime winner, someone came through.
But things don't usually come that easy in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and UND is finding that out right now.
Despite leading 3-1 at the midway point in Friday's first-place vs. second-place showdown with Minnesota Duluth, the Fighting Hawks squandered it in stunning fashion, giving up a season-high seven goals in a 7-4 defeat against the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs.
Warroad's Kobe Roth scored twice and had a three-point game as UND continued its mysterious defensive woes in the new year in front of 7,016 in Amsoil Arena.
Not all is lost.
UND (18-3-3) still has lost just three times in 24 games this season, has a five-point cushion ahead of Minnesota Duluth atop the NCHC standings and holds the No. 3 spot nationally in the Pairwise Rankings.
But there's plenty to be concerned about defensively if you consider:
- UND finished the first half of the season ranked No. 3 nationally in goals against, giving up 1.59 per game. Since Christmas, the Fighting Hawks are allowing 3.57, ranking 53rd nationally out of 60 college hockey teams in that span.
- UND gave up 27 goals in the entire first half of the season. It has given up 25 in January with two games left to go in the month.
- Goaltender Adam Scheel, who hasn't had much help from his defense, posted a .927 save percentage in the first half and is at .812 in the second half.
"We've still got to know what the identity of this team is -- and that's managing pucks through the 'D' zone and neutral zone, chipping pucks by and grinding teams down," UND captain Colton Poolman said. "We didn't do enough of that tonight. Our management of the game becomes our defense. And we haven't been doing a good enough job."
UND coach Brad Berry said: "Puck management is one thing. Maybe somebody trying to do a little bit too much on a play, which results in a disadvantage for us in the defensive zone. It's one of those things where we're going to have to make sure we play as a five-man unit for 60 minutes. And it seems like there's been a breakdown here or there that leads to a goal or at least momentum for them that turns the game around."
That moment Friday came midway through the second period.
The Fighting Hawks led 3-1 on goals by Westin Michaud, who is from nearby Cloquet, Minn., Hobey Baker Award candidate Jordan Kawaguchi and defenseman Matt Kiersted. Then, UND had a power-play opportunity with Minnesota Duluth defenseman Louie Roehl in the box for tripping and captain Nick Wolff in the box serving a 10-minute misconduct.
Instead of burying the Bulldogs at that point -- like the Fighting Hawks did so many times in the first half -- they surprisingly let them back in it.
UND failed to get a puck deep on a zone entry and Bulldog forward Cole Koepke carried the puck to the net on a partial breakaway. Scheel appeared to be in position to make the stop, but the puck got underneath him to make it 3-2. It was the first shorthanded goal UND has allowed this season.
Less than four minutes later, Minnesota Duluth freshman Quinn Olson scored on the power play to tie it. And with less than a minute left in the second period, Bulldog forward Nick Swaney one-timed a puck off of Poolman's shoulder and past Scheel (31 saves).
All of the sudden, UND was trailing 4-3 to a team that entered the weekend 10-0-0 when leading after two.
"We have to do a better job of handling momentum swings in games, knowing that happens in hockey," Berry said. "And we can't be egregious in giving them opportunities in that way. You know what? They played hard. They played a good game. But for us, we've got to play better in that area."
The UND coaching staff again has a difficult decision on starting goaltender for Saturday night's series finale at 7:07 p.m. in Amsoil Arena.
A week ago at Miami, the coaching staff opted to start junior Peter Thome in the series finale. It was Thome's first start of the season and he turned in a 5-3 win. Scheel has started the other 23 games.
"He battled hard tonight," Berry said of Scheel. "He had to make some hard saves. I think we left him on an island for a few of those. I think we have to do a better job in front of him as a group. He's a resilient young man. He'll come back and he'll keep battling up here.
"It hasn't come easy for him. It hasn't come easy for some guys on our team here. But it's one of those things where you go through a season -- it's a long season -- and you have to look forward now. It's very easy to look in the review mirror all the time and kind of dwell on the negative. You have to get better. You have to look and see how you can get better. But it's about now turning the page and trying to keep moving forward here."
There were several other glaring stat lines.
UND's shutdown line of Gavin Hain, Mark Senden and Cole Smith combined for a minus-9 rating. Collin Adams, who has been the nation's plus-minus leader much of the season, was a minus-3, too. And UND lost the faceoff battle to the Bulldogs, 32-24.
Now, UND has to try to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.
"Our group has done a lot of good things," Berry said. "We've just got to make sure we tighten up in a few different areas."
Minn. Duluth 7, UND 4
First period -- 1. UND, Westin Michaud 11 (Judd Caulfield 6, Shane Pinto 8) 14:46; 2. DUL, Kobe Roth 10 (Tanner Laderoute 5, Jade Miller 4) 15:17
Second period -- 3. UND, Jordan Kawaguchi 13 (Matt Kiersted 18, Jasper Weatherby 4) 4:12 (pp); 4. UND, Kiersted 3 (Michaud 10) 5:51; 5. DUL, Cole Koepke 9 (Scott Perunovich 23) 10:44 (sh); 6. DUL, Quinn Olson 3 (Justin Richards 7, Dylan Samberg 14) 14:35 (pp); 7. DUL, Nick Swaney 8 (Samberg 15) 19:10
Third period -- 8. DUL, Laderoute 6 (Roth 6, Jarod Hilderman 2) 8:16; 9. DUL, Noah Cates 10 (Jackson Cates 12, Swaney 11) 11:54; 10. UND, Jasper Weatherby 8 (Caulfield 7, Kawaguchi 24) 15:03; 11. DUL, Roth 11 (Nick Wolff 6) 15:38
Penalties -- Wolff, DUL, hooking, 6:49 first; Collin Adams, UND, hooking, 10:41 first; Grant Mismash, UND, roughing, 15:57 first; Hilderman, DUL, slashing, 2:40 second; Wolff, DUL, 10-minute misconduct, 2:40 second; Louie Roehl, DUL, tripping, 9:06 second; Kiersted, UND, elbowing, 13:48 second; Olson, DUL, roughing, 13:51 third, Michaud, UND, roughing, 13:51 third; Perunovich, DUL, roughing, 13:51 third; Gabe Bast, UND, roughing, 13:51 third; Roth, DUL, slashing, 13:51 third
Goalie saves -- UND: Adam Scheel 12-8-11 -- 31; DUL: Hunter Shepard 6-8-16 -- 30
Penalties-minutes -- UND 5-10, DUL 7-22
Power plays -- UND 2-4, DUL 1-3
Attendance -- 7,016
Referees -- Stephen Reneau and Cameron Voss
Linesmen -- Jeff Schultz and Brandon Schmitt