After a very light schedule for NCHC teams this weekend, it gets real starting next week. Four weekends will remain in the regular season, and all eight teams will be in action each week, closing things out with an intense race to the finish line in college hockey's best conference.
With UMD in non-conference play this weekend, and only two other league games being contested (Denver-CC Friday and Miami-Western Michigan Saturday), I thought it would be a good chance to break down the remaining schedules for the NCHC championship contenders.
(For the sake of argument, I've cut the list of contenders off at fifth place. No disrespect to St. Cloud State or Western Michigan, but I think a double-digit deficit in points is just too much to expect either of them to make up in eight games when they have to pass so many teams to get there. Now watch one of them do it.)
32 points, first place
On pace for 48 points
Games remaining: vs Western Michigan; at St. Cloud State; at UMD; vs Colorado College
The Mavericks are in the driver's seat. Third-place UMD is -- based on the current standings -- the best team UNO plays the rest of the way. That said, I do expect Western to give these guys fits next weekend. The Broncos weren't dialed in when they hosted Omaha in October. They're in much better position to make UNO's life difficult now. Everyone has been waiting for the team's youth and inexperience to catch up with it. Hasn't happened. And at this point, you'd be silly to hold your breath. The likes of Jake Randolph, Luc Snuggerud, Tyler Vesel, and Avery Peterson have shown no signs of slowing down. And neither has goalie/brick wall Ryan Massa.
31 points, second place
On pace for 46.5 points
Games remaining: vs Denver; at Western Michigan; vs St. Cloud State; at Miami
For UND, health is becoming a huge key, in its favor. Troy Stecher returned last weekend, former Duluth East star Trevor Olson is back, and UND finally has some depth. Dave Hakstol's teams traditionally get hot in February and March, and I expect this season to be no exception. The closing series at Miami is going to be unbelievably good. You can mark my words on that. North Dakota doesn't have the high-end skill it's had in the past, but this team works extremely hard, plays good defense, and has a top-notch goalie in Zane McIntyre.
28 points, third place
On pace for 42 points
Games remaining: vs St. Cloud State; at Miami; vs Omaha; at Western Michigan
The Bulldogs need to see more of the Kasimir Kaskisuo they saw Saturday in Denver. The man they call "Kas" played his best game of 2015 Saturday as UMD won 4-2 and earned a split against the Pioneers. His save percentage the previous six starts was in the .870 range, and that isn't good enough. He doesn't have to dazzle because the team in front of him is strong and deep, but a return to 2014 form wouldn't hurt one bit. UMD had a four-game winless streak in January, but the Bulldogs played very well in Denver, and outside of the Western Michigan trip, all that remains are games against teams that the Bulldogs match up pretty well with.
26 points, fourth place
On pace for 41.6 points
Games remaining: vs Western Michigan at Hockey City Classic (Saturday); at Colorado College; vs UMD; at Denver; vs North Dakota
Miami has a game in hand on UMD and can pass the Bulldogs for third place Saturday with a win over WMU. No matter what, the RedHawks are absolutely a player in this race. The schedule is very difficult, outside of the CC series, but Miami has the horses to stay in the race despite that schedule. I will say this: Miami's only chance at the Penrose Cup is to beat Western on Saturday and take six points at CC next weekend. It'll be too hard to get a sweep in those last three series. Miami is a very dangerous team, so don't count it out.
24 points, fifth place
On pace for 38.4 points
Games remaining: at Colorado College (Saturday); at North Dakota; vs Colorado College (home and home); vs Miami; at St. Cloud State
There are landmines on this remaining schedule, with North Dakota and Miami looming. However, Denver has a third of its remaining games against last-place Colorado College. Take seven or more points in those games, and the Pioneers suddenly are in pretty good shape to finish above the current pace. This team has an elite defensive corps, and Trevor Moore and Danton Heinen are two of the better young forwards in the conference. DU's goaltending was up-and-down in both series against UMD, and the Pios can ill afford to have more downs in the last four weeks.