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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service, Published January 22 2014

UND still has shot at conference title

GRAND FORKS – Get ready for a wild finish in the first season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

At the midway point of league play – all eight members have played 12 of 24 conference games – five teams are within three points, or one game, of first place.

St. Cloud State is in the driver’s seat with 23 points. The University of North Dakota and Denver – two teams that will play this weekend in Magness Arena – are tied for second with 21, along with Nebraska-Omaha. Western Michigan, which would finish in the bottom half of the league if the season ended today, has 20 points.

Even Minnesota-Duluth is within striking distance at 17 points – only two games back of the first-place Huskies. Strangely enough, preseason league favorite Miami is one of the teams sagging in the standings with a 3-8-1 mark (11 points).

Duluth and St. Cloud State are at the North Star College Cup this weekend in St. Paul, but after that, only league play is left for the NCHC, which will award the Penrose Cup to the league’s regular-season champion.

Although UND got off to a rocky 4-7-2 start, it can jump into first place with a victory at Denver on Friday night. Likewise for the Pioneers, who were 3-5-1 after nine games.

It has been a strange season for many NCHC teams.

Miami, which returned nearly everyone from last year’s team including Hobey Baker hopefuls Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik, is just 1-7-1 in its last nine NCHC games. The RedHawks have plunged to No. 30 in the Pairwise Rankings.

St. Cloud State is still the front-runner in the league, but the Huskies have hit some adversity recently. Since starting the season 11-1-2, the Huskies have just one win in their last six games (1-3-2).

Omaha had quite the lineup of opponents in November: Denver, UND, Michigan and Miami. The Mavericks went 6-2 in that stretch. Since then, they have just one win in eight games (1-5-2). The Mavs went 3-7 in nonconference play this season.

Since getting swept by UND at home in December, Western Michigan is 6-1-1 in the last eight games, including a win over Michigan, a sweep of Miami and getting five of six points at St. Cloud State last weekend.

Since moving to 4-7-2 overall with a home loss against St. Lawrence, UND has yet to drop a game, going on a nine-game unbeaten streak. It’s the second-longest active unbeaten streak in the country.

Denver’s tough start included losing four games in overtime. Since then, the Pioneers have evened things out, losing just two of their last 15 games (9-2-4).

Colorado College has imploded, winning one time in 21 games since the season opener. The Tigers went 0-9-1 in nonconference play this season.

Minnesota-Duluth has perhaps had the steadiest season of anyone, staying within a game of .500 for all but two games during the season.

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald