UMD continues its prep for the stretch run this week, as the Bulldogs' NCHC title hopes will be determined by six games over the next three weekends to finish the regular season.
And UMD now knows it will start that stretch run from a chase position.
Denver took care of business over the weekend, sweeping longtime rival Colorado College in a home-and-home series to run its winning streak against the Tigers to 12 and taking a one-point lead on UMD for the top spot in the NCHC. DU won 2-1 at home Friday before routing the Tigers 5-1 in Colorado Springs Saturday. The Pioneers are playing incredibly well, with five straight wins and an 8-2 record since the calendar flipped to 2017. Over that ten-game run, DU has six games of five or more goals.
Of course, UMD has been no slouch since the break. The Bulldogs stumbled out of the gates in January, going 0-2-1 over the first three games. Since then, UMD is 6-0-1, including a two-game sweep at North Dakota and a championship at the North Star College Cup. The Bulldogs also have tightened defensively as of late, giving up just five goals over five games with two Hunter Miska shutouts thrown in. Only two of those five goals were scored at even strength.
It's a two-horse race in the NCHC, with Denver (41 points) and UMD (40) both having clinched home ice for the NCHC playoffs and UMD 11 points up on third-place Western Michigan in the standings. Let's look at the remaining schedules for both.
at Miami -- the teams tied twice in Denver Nov. 18-19, with DU winning both shootouts
vs St. Cloud State -- they split Jan. 20-21 in St. Cloud
at Omaha -- DU swept a home series from the Mavs Jan. 27-28
at Colorado College -- we all know what happened Jan. 6-7 in Duluth, ugh
vs Miami -- first meeting this season
at Western Michigan -- they split Nov. 11-12 in Duluth
You can't base a ton off the early-season meetings, but it's clear that both teams have difficult paths to the end of the regular season. Miami will give them both fits, thanks to an improving group of forwards and the play of freshman goalie Ryan Larkin, who has a very solid .920 save percentage despite his team not giving him a ton of run support. St. Cloud State is playing exceptionally well right now and just got a huge home sweep of Miami, but UMD has to deal with the Colorado Springs trip and fun with altitude off a bye week. And the Tigers beat UMD in Duluth in their last meeting.
So don't be shocked if the league title isn't decided until the last week of the season, with Denver in Omaha and UMD in Kalamazoo. And on the surface, the edge has to go to Denver with that in mind. Little explanation should be necessary.
(Both Omaha and WMU can be overly reliant on special teams to create goals, which isn't optimal as we enter a time of the season where there are usually not as many penalties in games. However, UNO is explosive up front, and Western might be the most underrated team in the league offensively.)
As for the rest of the league, here's how it looks.
SCSU 28 (but only four games left)
UNO 26 (but only four games left)
Max point totals:
We don't know much. UMD and Denver will be at home for the first round (SCSU can only tie UMD, but UMD has the tiebreaker based on head to head wins) no matter what. Colorado College will be on the road. Nothing else is decided, as UNO and Miami could get home ice by going on a late run, and there's still time for someone currently in a home-ice position to fade out of it.
UMD heads to beautiful Colorado Springs this weekend. Usually, I'd openly wonder how good the Bulldogs will be coming out of a bye and playing at high altitude, but I don't doubt they'll be ready for this series. CC waltzed into Amsoil Arena and took four points from UMD Jan. 6-7 in what's easily been the low point of UMD's season to date. I can't guarantee UMD will play well, but I can be virtually certain this team will be prepared to play.
The Bulldogs have seen much success on Olympic ice in recent years, a story I love rehashing whenever they play at Minnesota. St. Cloud State, or Colorado College, the last bastions of the big sheet that this team plays on even a semi-regular basis.
In the last 12 games UMD has played on the big ice, it is 11-1, with the only loss last season to Northern Michigan. Over its last 30 games going back to the 2011-12 season, UMD is 18-9-3.
Should be a fun weekend. Weather looks fantastic, and TV VOX Zach Schneider is traveling on this trip. We'll show him the ropes. Or I'll sunbathe at the hotel while watching Baskets on Hulu. One or the other. Either way, talk next from Colorado barring any big and unexpected news at media day Wednesday. Follow @BruceCiskie on Twitter for the other stuff that happens.