When talking about how hard these last four weekends of NCHC play are for everyone, Miami coach Enrico Blasi made it clear he wasn't complaining.
"This is what we signed up for."
When talking about how hard this conference in general is, UMD coach Scott Sandelin made it clear he wasn't complaining, either.
"We all knew that when we signed up for it."
In its second season, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has already established itself as the toughest league in college hockey. Four of the top six in the current Pairwise -- along with five of the top nine -- reside in the NCHC.
Two weeks from Saturday, we'll know the pairings for the NCHC quarterfinal series. I can tell you right now that every coach of a home team will talk about how his team is playing a team no one wanted to have to face in a best-of-three. Even lowly Colorado College is showing signs of life thanks to improved defensive play. If the Tigers figure out how to score, they're going to give real trouble to the league regular-season champ.
(Yeah, we'll lock the Tigers into last place in the league, even though it's mathematically possible for them to tie Western Michigan for seventh and win the tiebreaker.)
What we have in Oxford this weekend is a marquee matchup of teams that are -- at least in my estimation -- among the five best teams in Division I. They played an outstanding series in Duluth on Halloween weekend, and I expect this one to be similarly good.
"I feel they're one of the best teams, if not the best team, in our league," Sandelin said of this week's adversary.
"Oh, my God, it's become quite a rivalry, and we know how hard they play and how skilled they are, and how well-coached they are," Blasi said. "It's going to be a fun weekend, two good teams going at it."
Look at this Miami roster. The RedHawks are so deep and talented up front that it doesn't even matter that senior captain and Lowe's Senior CLASS Award finalist Austin Czarnik somehow only has two goals this season.
(Don't worry. He's contributing plenty. He has 27 assists.)
Miami will field a lineup that features four guys in double figures in goals. Sean Kuraly (14), Riley Barber (13), Cody Murphy (11), and Blake Coleman (10) all can fill the net. They're highly-skilled players who make life a living hell for opposing defenses.
While the RedHawks don't sport the high-end skill Denver has on its blue line, the RedHawks are just as active. Matthew Caito, Ben Paulides, and stud freshman Louie Belpedio (Sandelin says Belpedio is "as good a freshman 'D' as I've seen in a while") aren't afraid to get down around the faceoff dots. They don't score a lot (Miami's blue line has combined for 12 goals this season, while UMD has 16), but they force teams to account for them in close. That can create chances for the forwards as the puck goes low to high and people get open.
UMD counters with even more offensive balance. Miami has the four guys in double figures, but only six total players with five or more goals. Even taking leading scorer Dominic Toninato out of the equation (he's on the trip but not a safe bet to be in the lineup), the Bulldogs have eight players with five or more goals.
The Bulldogs' team speed has given even top defensive teams like Denver fits this season, and I expect there will be times this weekend where UMD is able to establish its forecheck and just suffocate Miami. But the RedHawks are so skilled up front that they don't need much of an opening to make something happen.
Saturday wasn't a great performance for UMD. The Bulldogs fell to St. Cloud State 4-1 and looked just flat, especially in the second period. Sandelin says he's heard coaches talking about how their players put so much into a Friday win that they had nothing left on Saturday, but he won't go there.
"I don't know how you can't play 120 minutes of hockey," Sandelin said this week. "It's what you signed up for."
Even if UMD had lost on Friday, Sandelin would have been pleased with his team's performance. The same wouldn't necessarily been true had they found a way to win Saturday's game.
"Everyone focuses on the end result, I look at the 60 minutes," he said. "For us to come out and not have a better game on Saturday, for me and the guys, it's not acceptable. There's no excuse for it. Not when you're 30 games into the year and playing for valuable points. We had a good talk about that Monday."
Sandelin was quick to say he doesn't expect his team to play perfectly at this stage. However, he wants a better effort for 120 minutes or more this weekend.
"It can't just be one night. It can't just be part of the game. We need it from everybody. We need to play better hockey for 60 minutes. We've got to play better. Our league is too good. Any lapses cost you."
Quick injury update for you.
As I mentioned, Toninato is on the trip. However, listening back to Sandelin's press conference Wednesday, I'd say it's unlikely he plays Friday. UMD brought eight defensemen on the trip, and one of them -- probably freshman Nick McCormack -- will likely play on the fourth forward line Friday.
That's a sign that Toninato won't play. Freshman Blake Young, who had been playing on said fourth line, went down in the first period Saturday and did not return. He did not make the trip.
I don't know if there's any chance Toninato plays this weekend, or if it's like when Adam Krause went on the Omaha trip when I had a better chance of playing than he did.
All I know is he practiced some on Wednesday and he's here this weekend. Hopefully, even if he doesn't play, it's a sign of progress in his recovery.