It just doesn't get any easier for the UMD Bulldogs.
UMD has faced teams either tied with or ahead of it in the NCHC standings every weekend of conference play, including notably tough opponents St. Cloud State and Denver. Adding to it, the non-conference schedule has included Notre Dame, Minnesota, and now the North Star College Cup.
In this four-team tournament, the Bulldogs see two teams in the top five of both national polls, and a third team -- UMD's opponent on Friday -- which is absolutely a bubble team in the PairWise rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process.
That's right, 14-10 Minnesota State has vaulted itself straight into NCAA consideration, despite a so-so non-conference record. Last week's home sweep of then-No. 2 Ferris State helps matters a bit.
We knew going into the season it was a tough schedule, and it has been every bit of that. It's a great challenge, and this weekend presents a great opportunity for the 9-9-2 Bulldogs.
"We've got one of the toughest schedules in college hockey," freshman defenseman Carson Soucy said this week. "In college hockey, every team is so close. It makes you have to battle so much harder."
The Bulldogs take on the Mavericks Friday afternoon at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul. It's their first meeting at a neutral site since UMD took down MSU in the 2003 WCHA Final Five third-place game. Besides the historical significance of the NSCC's first game, this is a key game for both teams.
MSU went 1-3 on an early-January trip to Alaska, but as second-year coach Mike Hastings noted when I talked to him this week, the Mavs rebounded quickly.
"We came back and decided to leave Alaska in Alaska," Hastings said. "I thought our leadership group with (captain) Jonny McInnis and Zach Lehrke did a great job of re-focusing our group. We really did take it a period at a time and tried to make sure we were controlling what we could control. We did a good job of it this past weekend."
As part of my weekly preparation for UMD games/series, I like to watch the opponent's most recent games. Technology makes this a pretty easy process, and I take a few hours each week to look for certain tendencies and just get a feel for how a team is playing.
Through that study and UMD's games, I've said without apology that St. Cloud State is the best team I've seen this season, with Minnesota and Notre Dame trailing. I haven't been prone to hyperbole with this work each week, so hopefully no one thinks I'm talking out of my rear end here.
Minnesota State is up there with the best teams I've seen on video.
The Mavericks were on fire last weekend against Ferris State. They attacked with speed, drove the net, and got strong goaltending.
"I was very impressed," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "I thought they were a team that went hard to the net. It was a very competitive series, very physical. They got to the net really hard. They have some skill players. I was very impressed with their speed."
MSU will be short-handed in Friday's game. Forwards Teddy Blueger and Zach Stepan were given game disqualifications Saturday for their role in a fight. They are automatically suspended for the semifinal.
"It's not going to change how they play," Sandelin said. "Certainly, if they play like (they did against Ferris), we're in for a major challenge."
For the second straight weekend, UMD is in a matchup of two of the nation's top penalty kills. The Bulldogs held a powerful Denver power play scoreless last weekend, and the UMD kill is now fifth nationally at 88.6 percent. MSU is third at 89.3 percent.
"Our penalty killers have done a really good job," Hastings said. "Penalty killing is a lot of selfless work. You're doing everything to make sure that puck doesn't get into the net."
Hastings knows his team has a challenge on its hands Friday, too.
"To see them play on tape, they're playing with confidence. The impact that their freshmen are having on the team, they grow weekly. Look at the schedule, they're getting tested every weekend. They're getting better all the time. They're a team that's gonna end up making a lot of noise in the playoffs in the NCHC."
UMD's defense will be seriously tested. Guys like Matt Leitner and JP LaFontaine will attack the net. They have already proven themselves at this level, and Hastings notes both have been playing much better as of late. The Mavericks attack in waves, and if UMD isn't careful, odd-man rushes could become the order of the late afternoon in St. Paul.
With the job the Bulldogs have done protecting Aaron Crandall and limiting second-chance opportunities, much of Friday's keys involve keeping the Mavericks forwards from getting in Crandall's kitchen and disrupting what has been an impressive run for the senior goalie. With a .949 save percentage over his last four starts (2-1-1 record), Crandall enters the NSCC with plenty of confidence, and the team has confidence in him.
But for UMD to move into the title game Saturday night, 60 consistent minutes with an emphasis on sound puck possession are required. If the teams take to the ice in front of thousands of empty seats as I fear they will, the one that gets into the game early and plays with energy has a great advantage, no matter the goaltending.