Where does UND sit in the NCHC hockey standings?
GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota's chances at bringing home the Penrose Cup for the third time in four years diminished significantly over the weekend in a pair of losses at Minnesota Duluth.
The more realistic aim is now securing a top-four finish in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings and a getting home ice for the first round of the league playoffs for a 16th consecutive season.
That won't be easy, either.
UND sits in fourth place, just one point ahead of a Minnesota Duluth team that is on a seven-game unbeaten streak. Here's a breakdown of the NCHC race with six weeks to go in the regular season.
The favorite: Denver (27 points). The heavy preseason favorite hit some bumps in the road during the first half of the season, but is emerging as the most likely team to win the Penrose Cup.
They have an off week while star forward Troy Terry goes to the Olympic Games, meaning he'll miss just four games instead of six. And the fact that Henrik Borgstrom isn't going with Team Finland is a minor miracle, allowing the Pioneers to keep their Hobey Baker Award contender the whole time.
Reigning Mike Richter Award winner, goalie Tanner Jaillet, had a .919 save percentage at Christmas, but is rounding into form and has a .946 since then.
The contender: St. Cloud State (25 points). The Huskies control their own destiny to Penrose because they've played two fewer league games than Denver, but they have more questions coming down the stretch.
St. Cloud State has been much better at home (11-2-1) than on the road (3-3-2) this season. But the Huskies have two play two-thirds of their remaining games away from the National Hockey Center and the big Olympic ice sheet that's been so kind to them.
They'll also lose Will Borgen for three weeks for the Olympics, leaving them short on right-handed defensemen. St. Cloud State has terrific depth, though, and could still make a run.
The home-ice battle: Western Michigan (24 points), North Dakota (22 points), Minnesota Duluth (21 points). Assuming Denver and St. Cloud State lock down home ice for the first round of the playoffs, only two more spots are open. And these three teams are piled up.
Western Michigan would have been a legit Penrose Cup contender had it not been decimated with injuries. Hobey Baker candidate Wade Allison is out for the year and second-leading scorer Colt Conrad hasn't played since taking an elbow to the head two weeks ago.
The schedule sets up favorably for Western. The Broncos are done with Denver and North Dakota, and they get St. Cloud State at home. And they've been extremely impressive in handling all of the injuries thus far, but it's hard to overcome losses of that magnitude in the long haul.
North Dakota also is dealing with an injury to its top-line center Rhett Gardner, who didn't play last weekend at Minnesota Duluth. UND also has struggled to kill penalties lately and still has to face power plays that are ranked No. 4, 5, 7 and 9 nationally.
A Fighting Hawks team that has battled inconsistency for most of the season needs to find some consistency immediately to get back to The Ralph for the playoffs and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota Duluth, predictably, is surging. The Bulldogs not only broke in five rookie defensemen in the first half of the season, they also dealt with a long string of injuries. Now healthy and more experienced, they're on a seven-game unbeaten streak and rocketing up the standings.
The others: Colorado College (15), Omaha (15), Miami (13). With six points available each weekend, none of these teams are truly out of the mix for home ice, but they have more uphill battles.
The Tigers have been the surprise of the season, surging behind the prolific top line of Mason Bergh, Nick Halloran and Trey Bradley. But when scoring gets harder down the stretch, the Tigers are going to need more from their special teams units. They rank last in the NCHC in power play, penalty kill and special teams net.
Omaha has been as dangerous as any team in the league offensively but has lacked the consistency that it will need to jump into home-ice contention. Goaltending also is a question for the Mavs, who are tied with RIT for the worst save percentage in the country.
Miami has a better winning percentage in league play than both Colorado College and Omaha—the RedHawks have played two fewer games—but they also have the most difficult schedule ahead.
The last four weeks of the season, Miami plays St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth, UND and Denver.