Five weeks. Ten games.
“It's anyone's game right now,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Ten games ... that's a lot of points.”
Blais takes his Mavericks to No. 16 North Dakota for a two-game National Collegiate Hockey Conference series this weekend, with the puck dropping at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
UNO and North Dakota are part of a three-way tie for second in the NCHC with 24 points. Denver, the other team tied for second, plays a series at first-place St. Cloud State, which has a two-point lead. Fifth-place Minnesota-Duluth has 23 points, and even sixth-place Western Michigan, with 20 points, is one good weekend away from making a run at the top.
All eight NCHC teams have 10 games left in an inaugural season that appears to be living up to its billing.
“The way it's shaping up the last 10 games, it's going to be everything we expected,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “And more.”
UNO (10-12-2, 7-5-2-1 NCHC) is trying to pull as many points as possible out of Ralph Engelstad Arena. UNO split with North Dakota when the teams met in Omaha in November.
“We feel like this league is going to be like it's been the last few years (when UNO was in the WCHA), where it goes down to the last weekend of the season,” UNO forward Zahn Raubenheimer said. “I don't think anybody is going to run away with it. The top four teams are playing each other. All we can do is go up to North Dakota and do what we do best.”
What North Dakota has done best under Hakstol is get hot during the second half of the season. In Hakstol's 10 seasons, North Dakota has a .700 winning percentage (148-57-23) after Christmas, compared to a .583 mark (100-69-17) before the holidays.
North Dakota (13-8-3, 8-6) had last weekend off after splitting a series at Denver, losing the Jan. 25 finale. That loss snapped a 10-game unbeaten streak, during which North Dakota was 9-0-1.
“They've always gotten hot in the second half,” UNO forward Josh Archibald said. “I don't know what they do, but I'd kind of like to get in on it.”
North Dakota, which averages 2.7 goals per game, boasts a talented roster that has a national-best 15 NHL draft picks. Defenseman Jordan Schmaltz is one of five first-round picks playing college hockey. Forward Rocco Grimaldi, a second-rounder, leads North Dakota in scoring with 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists).
UNO has six draft picks.
“Their defensive corps is really sound,” Blais said. “That's their strength.
“But there isn't anything that they don't do well. They've got speed. They check well. They're obviously well-coached. And they're a team that always plays well the second half of the season.”
While UNO has slumped at the end of the past two regular seasons, it has played better its past two series this year, going 2-1-1 after a seven-game winless streak (0-5-2).
The Mavs were red-hot in November, when they beat North Dakota 4-2 in the series opener and felt like they'd played well enough to win in a 3-2 loss the following day.
“When North Dakota came in, they weren't playing all that well,” Blais said. “I thought we deserved to win both of those games. But they seem to have a lot more passion now. Their forechecking is much more tenacious. It's a different team than it was two months ago.”
Both teams are different on special teams these days, too.
When North Dakota came to Omaha, it had the country's best penalty-kill unit while UNO's was among the worst.
But North Dakota has killed off just 76.1 percent of penalties since the first UNO series to drop to 31st nationally at 81.5 percent overall. UNO is 53rd in the country with a 76 percent success rate.
Still, UNO had killed off 16 straight power plays before giving up a goal on a five-minute major last Saturday. In games matching NCHC opponents, UNO actually ranks third on the penalty kill at 85.9 percent. UNO also has the league's best power play in NCHC-only games, at 22.7 percent.
“We'll take that,” Blais said. “We're happy with our special teams. You can get streaky on special teams, too.”