If you haven't been paying attention, you may have noticed that one Minnesota-based college hockey team started the season white-hot, and has since played rather average hockey (at least in comparison).
Another Minnesota-based college hockey team, coming off its first-ever national championship, started the season 1-3, got swept at home by a rival in two scintillating but gut-wrenching games, and hasn't lost in 16 games since.
Because of that 16-game run, Minnesota Duluth has become the nation's top-ranked team in virtually every mathematical or subjective metric that you can concoct. Minnesota, meanwhile, is starting to look like a team that isn't going in the right direction.Minnesota started the season 9-1, looking virtually unstoppable at times. Like UMD during its streak, though, the Gophers were finding different ways to win games. They blew a 2-0 lead at UMD, fell behind in the final two minutes, needed a lucky bounce to get to overtime, but then made an amazing play to set up a Nate Condon overtime winner. The next night, the Gophers were outshot 50-16, trailed 2-0, but then took a 5-2 lead before holding on for dear life at the end.
They swept North Dakota at home, getting a huge goal from Kyle Rau late in the second game to secure the win. They blew out Sacred Heart twice.
But the wheels have started to wobble a bit for Minnesota as of late. The bounces they may have been getting are not coming now. Over the last 13 games, Minnesota is just 6-6-1, with losses to Northeastern, St. Cloud State, and Wisconsin, all teams hovering around .500 (if not below .500).
Minnesota has lost one-goal games in this stretch. They haven't been blown out. In fact, of Minnesota's seven losses, six have been by a single goal. The Gophers are 4-6 in one-goal games.
This is still a very good, very talented, very tough, and very dangerous team. The Gophers play a pretty tough second-half schedule, starting this weekend at rival North Dakota. Minnesota also plays road series at Nebraska Omaha and Denver, while hosting Colorado College.
UMD, meanwhile, has done little wrong over the last 16 games. The Bulldogs have faced two-goal deficits three times, rallying to tie two of those games and win the other. UMD has allowed the first goal seven times total in 16 games.
Simply put, the Bulldogs look unstoppable at this point. Things change, but coach Scott Sandelin has the team clicking in all areas, and unlike previous UMD teams, this one looks like one that can score at will five-on-five.
The Bulldogs are also showing superior conditioning, repeatedly wearing down teams and grinding out wins in the third periods of games. Over this stretch of 16 straight without a loss, UMD has outscored its opposition 27-10, including 6-0 in a weekend sweep of Western Michigan last week in Kalamazoo.
In those same 16 third periods, UMD senior captain and Hobey Baker favorite Jack Connolly has eight goals and ten assists for 18 points, an incredible run of third-period success.
Are the Bulldogs peaking right now? It's hard to say. UMD is playing with a lot of confidence, but the players are not over-confident. They believe in themselves, but yet appear to be taking nothing for granted, in practice or in games.
Any time you get a team this hot, the worry is that they are not peaking at the right time. An experienced group of players and coaches, however, is not likely to allow such a thing to happen. It seems UMD is in this for the long haul, and with more balance across the scoring lines, and more balance in the offense they're getting from the defensemen, it could be argued Sandelin actually has a better team than the one he won the whole thing with last year.
UMD and Minnesota do not play again during the regular season, and any future meetings would likely be contested at the XCel Energy Center in St. Paul, either at the WCHA Final Five, or at the NCAA West Regional the following weekend.
One thing is abundantly clear. With these two teams tied at 22 points in league play, there's no chance that the league title race is over yet. And with Colorado College finally healthy and at full strength, there's no doubt the Tigers -- and possibly the likes of Nebraska Omaha, Denver, and North Dakota -- will insert themselves into this race if UMD, Minnesota, or both were to falter in the next few weeks.