UND has entered the driver's seat in its quest to win the Penrose Cup for a second-straight year.
The Fighting Hawks are sitting in first place in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, two points ahead of St. Cloud State with one extra game to play. They are inching closer toward being fully healthy and they're playing their best hockey of the season, having outscored opponents 14-2 in the last three games.
On the surface, it seems UND is destined to become the second team in the NCHC's eight-year history to win the league's regular-season title after being the preseason favorite (the other was the 2014-15 UND team).
But there's a unique twist to this college hockey season.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCHC created unbalanced schedules to alleviate travel issues. Those unbalanced schedules mean that UND might not have a lot of room for error in its final eight games.
The NCHC is shaping up to have a clear-cut bottom three teams in the standings: Western Michigan, Colorado College and Miami. UND went a combined 8-0-0 against these three teams, but won't play any of them again the rest of the regular season.
St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth (eight points back, one extra game to play) are playing half of their league schedule -- 12 of 24 games -- against those three teams. And their remaining schedules are almost exclusively against the bottom three.
The Huskies have seven games remaining. Their next five are against the bottom three. The Bulldogs have nine games remaining. Their next seven are against the bottom three.
Those two teams conclude the regular season with a home-and-home against each other.
St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth have a prime chance to go on a winning streak and take advantage of the unbalanced schedule this season.
UND, meanwhile, will play six of its final eight regular-season games against Omaha, which currently has the second-best winning percentage in the league behind the Fighting Hawks. Three will be on the road, three at home. The other series will be home against Denver, which accounts for two of UND's three losses this season.
Outside of the bottom three, UND is 4-3-1, though most of those games were played while shorthanded due to players at the World Junior Championship and injuries.
The Fighting Hawks will almost certainly have to do much better than 4-3-1 in the final eight to win the Penrose Cup again.