COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When UMD started its 2012-13 WCHA schedule 0-4-2 and sat tied for last place with two points, no one was thinking about the Bulldogs making a run for the MacNaughton Cup title in their last season in the league.
You can't win the league in October/November, but getting two points in six games is usually not a recipe for future success.
However, this WCHA isn't quite like the others.
Entering this weekend, there are eight teams at the top of the standings separated by a mere four points. The jumble is so tight that eighth-place Minnesota State -- swept by Wisconsin in two overtime games last week in Mankato -- would be tied for first if it had won those two games instead of losing them.
Since that 0-4-2 beginning, UMD is 7-2-1 in WCHA play, including 6-1-1 in the last eight league games.
That surge has left UMD just three points out of first place entering a weekend series here against Colorado College.
"Our big goal is to win the league, and then move on from there," junior forward Joe Basaraba said this week.
The best part? He wasn't kidding.
UMD has as good a chance of winning this league as anyone does at this point. The Bulldogs have been playing well, and have swept their last two league series. Yes, three of their remaining six league series are against teams currently ahead of them, but two of those (Denver and UNO) are at home. The other (Minnesota) is a rivalry series that we'll take our chances in.
These two games at CC are vitally important. The Tigers have slumped as of late, but much of that coincides with a long stretch without a home game, along with a very tough schedule.
"We played poorly at Omaha," coach Scott Owens said. But he feels his team was better in a weekend split last week at Grand Forks.
"We had a nice game Friday. Played a good 60-minute game. Up there, any win or points you can get is a good thing.
"We've been out of the World Arena for 40 days, and we're excited to get back home."
The Bulldogs have some tough league series coming. Hell, look at the standings. Every game is tough. But it won't be easy to get points from any of these teams. Not Denver. Not Minnesota State. Not Bemidji State. Certainly not Minnesota or Omaha.
And not Colorado College.
UMD has to continue trending upward, as it did last week against Michigan Tech. The Bulldogs blocked 20 shots in Friday's win, then turned around and blocked 23 shots Saturday. The back end wasn't as sharp Saturday, allowing too many good scoring chances and too much traffic in front of Matt McNeely. However, UMD did a great job bearing down on its scoring chances and wreaking havoc on the other end of the rink.
More of the same is needed this weekend. CC is 56th of 59 teams in Division I in scoring defense, giving up 3.75 goals per game. The Tigers have allowed three or more goals in 15 straight games. On the flip side, only two of their nine wins have come in games where they scored fewer than four goals.
If UMD can do the same kind of job defensively that it did last weekend, it should be at least a good weekend for the visitors. It's oversimplifying, but the Tigers aren't the kind of team that has shown it can win a close, low-scoring game. You have to slow them down to beat them.
It's easier said than done. Rylan Schwartz hasn't forgotten how to play hockey because his brother turned pro. William Rapuzzi and Alexander Krushelnyski are producing, as is Scott Winkler. This team can fill the net, so a puck-possession game and strong defense are keys. They can't score without the puck, and if you force their top guys to play defense, you stand a chance of either wearing them down or frustrating them. Either way, odds of winning increase.
UMD has to keep improving on draws, use the big sheet (get the puck wide and make sure to make CC defend the whole ice, not just the middle of the rink), and get points in this series. Preferably four.
If the climb continues, there will be more talk about walking out of this league with the championship. If that happens, UMD can compare itself to the Best In The World.
Yes, I just made a wrestling reference in a hockey post. And if you know what I'm talking about, you're nodding your head over it.
(By the way, that was an amazing match. Great stuff.)
Anyway, UMD is right in this thing, but there can be no letdown this weekend. No matter how close the standings are, there will eventually be some separation, and the Bulldogs can ill afford to make this chase more difficult than it already is.