At this point in the season, potential distractions are plentiful. Final exams, travel home for the holidays, the break itself, etc. But with a marquee series ahead, neither team is hearing anything about that stuff.
"Our focus is not going to be lacking this weekend," UMD senior defenseman Willie Corrin said this week. "I think guys' mindsets are here."
"We know how good they are," said first-year North Dakota coach Brad Berry. "The other part is the rivalry side. Duluth has always brought out the best. It has all the makings of that. We have to make sure our young guys know the rivalry and how intense it gets."
Yeah, both teams will be ready to play.
This weekend's series should bring loud, sold-out crowds both nights, with plenty of UND fans infiltrating Amsoil Arena. It's the kind of home atmosphere UMD has thrived in recently. Fill the building and jazz things up a bit, as they'll be this weekend, and the home team tends to play pretty well.
It'll take everything UMD has. Not only is history not on the Bulldogs' side, but this UND team is very, very good. More on that in a bit.
First, the negative. North Dakota has been successful at Amsoil Arena -- literally -- since it opened its doors. UND won the opening game in the building 5-0 on New Year's Eve of 2010. Overall, North Dakota is 4-1 at Amsoil Arena, with the four wins coming by a combined score of 17-3. The last trip to Duluth was in the 2013-14 season, and North Dakota won 3-0 and 6-2. The Saturday loss was particularly galling, as UND put 22 shots on goal in the first period, 36 over the first 40 minutes. North Dakota is 11-4-1 in the last 16 games against UMD, but the Bulldogs did split in Grand Forks in the teams' only get-together last season.
"They're in our way," Corrin said of North Dakota's position in the NCHC standings.
It's been an interesting season so far in Grand Forks. Despite the shocking resignation of Dave Hakstol last spring (he took the coaching job with the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers), UND was positioned to make a run in the NCHC behind first-year coach Brad Berry, who is no stranger to the culture of North Dakota hockey.
"I was very honored and humbled to be a head coach here," Berry said. "Dave had a lot of success because he did things the right way. He wanted to have a chance to try to do it at the next level. The biggest thing for me is to remain consistent to what we are here at North Dakota.
"He (Hakstol) is a very humble and hard-working guy. The blocks to our program were laid by Gino Gasparini in the 1980s, and Dean Blais in the 90s and 2000s and Coach Hakstol. I want to try to emulate (them) and try to keep the bar up where they've raised it."
Highly-touted freshman goalie Matej Tomek was injured in the offseason and still hasn't played a second for UND. Sophomore Cam Johnson -- who played sparingly last year as UND rode Zane McIntyre to the NCAA Frozen Four -- started the first three games, but was injured in the third game (at Bemidji State), forcing UND to turn to junior and former walk-on Matt Hrynkiw. All he did was go 9-2-1 in goal while Johnson was out.
"He's a 4.0 student, an engineering major," Berry said. "He's a guy that's detailed, hard-working. Came in here as a walk-on. He bought in to what we were doing here. He waited his time, not getting anything as far as permanent promises. He remained constant and steady."
Now Johnson's back, and he's allowed three goals in four starts since his return, including Saturday's 4-0 shutout of Denver. Johnson has a .934 save percentage and will start at least on Friday night.
Despite using a junior and former walk-on who was never promised a second of playing time in college hockey, North Dakota is 14-2-2 and high atop the NCHC at 7-1 so far in league play. UND's lead is three points on St. Cloud State and seven on third-place UMD. The Bulldogs have surged from a tie for seventh to sole possession of third by getting 14 of a possible 15 points in their last five conference games.
Last weekend, North Dakota throttled Denver 5-1 and 4-0. Well, "throttled" isn't exactly accurate with the Friday game, which didn't look the part of a 5-1 game as I watched it back. I thought it was a much more even game in terms of puck possession and chances, but UND took advantage of some transition opportunities and got a power play goal.
Now, that is an appropo term for the Saturday result. About halfway through the first period, shots were 4-3 North Dakota. At the end of the first period, shots were 19-3 North Dakota. They ended up 37-18 in favor of UND.
We know how good Denver is, and this was a jarring weekend result. Even when you look at Friday's game as a competitive affair that got out of hand on the scoreboard, it's hard to imagine someone putting the boots to the Pioneers like this in back-to-back games.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin told me this week he felt after watching the games back that it was more a case of North Dakota's level of play than anything Denver did wrong. UND was smothering, especially on Saturday. The Pioneers just couldn't sustain pressure and generate quality chances.
"I couldn't tell if Denver was just off that weekend of if they (UND) were that good," Sandelin said Wednesday, "but it looked like they were that good, so that's what we're preparing for."
Having watched those games back, I do think Sandelin is right. UND is a very, very good team that it will take a great effort to beat.
Sandelin thinks "we're going to need our best 120 minutes of the season" this weekend. That's accurate.
But there are ways. UMD needs to establish its strong forecheck, which won't be easy but can be accomplished by smart puck management and by the Bulldogs moving their feet and playing with high energy and intensity.
Keeping out of the box is huge, too. UND's power play is middling right now in terms of goals and chances, but it's going to get hot. There's too much talent for it not to.
Oh, and UMD has to deal with the "CBS" line this weekend. Senior Drake Caggiula, sophomore Nick Schmaltz, and freshman Brock Boeser make up what is probably the most dynamic line in college hockey right now. Berry knows he can deploy the three in any situation and he can use them for 20ish minutes a game, if not a little more if conditions warrant.
The three have combined for an obscene 27 goals and 68 points, and they're a combined plus-75. Even if you think the plus-minus stat is overused and overrated (I do), that's a stupid-good number that shows how explosive and responsible the three are.
With the three of them capable of heavy minutes, UMD might not go with a straight-up match against them. As home team, UMD gets the last change and choice of matchup, and I would expect most of the time the Bulldogs use Dominic Toninato's line against that top UND line. But I also wouldn't be surprised if Tony Cameranesi, vastly improved on faceoffs since his return from injury, took some draws against that line, especially in the offensive zone.
Of course, once you've shut down the CBS line, you still have to stop UND's other lines, keyed by guys like Bryn Chyzyk, Luke Johnson, and Austin Poganski, and their dynamic blue line. Paul LaDue, Troy Stecher, Keaton Thompson, and Tucker Poolman can make plays from the back and are capable of wreaking havoc on adversaries by jumping into soft spots in defensive coverage.
"They have 14 wins for a reason right now," Sandelin said. "They're a team that's got a tremendous first line. They've got pretty good depth through the rest of their lines. Their D-corps is probably, top to bottom, the best in the league."
That's not to say UND is unbeatable. I think UMD has more depth up front, and goaltending is a push. It could come down to the play of each team's defensemen. If it does, I'll take my chances.
For the last time, a reminder. Both games start at 7, and if you want to have a chance to see the opening faceoff either night, you'd best arrive early. There is a lot going on in the DECC complex and surrounding area, and if Saturday's headaches before the Western Michigan game are any indication, it will be tough sledding to get anywhere down there between 6pm and 7pm both nights. Plan accordingly, carpool, arrive early, whatever you need to do. We don't want to see people not able to get in before the start of the game.
Also, please consider bringing an new, unwrapped toy for the annual toy drive Saturday night.