The final month of the regular season starts on the road against the No. 1 team in the country.
The schedule doesn't get much easier after that.
The third-place Union College men's hockey team has put itself in good position in the ECAC Hockey standings for the final big push toward the postseason.
But while the Dutchmen's 2017-18 schedule was front-loaded with a slew of rugged nonference games, it is back-loaded with what has turned out to be a rugged ECACH schedule.
Preseason rankings — a shaky predictor of eventual performance, anyway — are ancient history by February. Starting with Friday's game at Lynah Rink against the Big Red (12-1-1, 18-2-1), six of the last eight regular-season games for Union (10-4-0, 15-12-1) will come against teams in the top half of the standings.
The Dutchmen are done with second-place Clarkson, but will play Cornell and Colgate twice, and Harvard and Dartmouth once each.
The Big Red acid test will be particularly significant, since Cornell has knocked Union out of the ECACH playoffs the last two seasons, including a dominating 4-1 win in the semifinals in Lake Placid last season.
"It's personal, especially for our class and the senior class," junior center Ryan Walker said on Tuesday. "They've knocked us out of the playoffs the last two years. And they're the No. 1 team right now. We're not stupid, we know that, we see that, so, knowing that, it's going to be a good challenge."
"It's a two-horse race right now," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "They've proven that consistently over the course of this year. And I think a bunch of us are trying to keep up. We have an opportunity, just as a few of these other teams do, to see if we can put ourselves in that mix."
Cornell hasn't lost in 10 straight games, with a 3-3 tie against Yale in that stretch, and the only two losses were to Clarkson 4-0 on Nov. 18 and Miami 2-1 on Dec. Dec. 2.
The Big Red have done it in typical fashion, with a smothering defense and good goaltending, mostly from a freshman, Matthew Galajda.
The Dutchmen could face two goalies this weekend who are each on the top four in the country in save percentage. Galajda is at .938 and Colgate sophomore Colton Point is second (.945).
The Big Red leads the country in goals-against average (1.43) and goal margin per game (+1.95).
Meanwhile, junior Anthony Angello has been on a tear, scoring seven of Cornell's 16 goals in the last five games, including both goals in a 2-0 win over Colgate on Jan. 19 and all three goals in a 3-0 win at Harvard last Friday.
"They're very patient," Bennett said. "They don't need the instant gratification right away. They will wait you out, play patiently. If it takes to the 19-minute mark of the third period to score, then that's what they'll do. They break you down just by being patient."
"They're very good at taking away what you want to do," Walker said. "That's one of his [Bennett's] main messages, to keep it simple.
"It does get frustrating against a team like Cornell, but I think that is how you beat them, keeping it simple and chipping pucks in. It doesn't sound very pretty and it might not show up on the scoreboard, but that could be the determining factor for winning against such a great team and a good defensive team."
Union is coming off a break from ECAC play, a 4-3 victory over RPI in the Mayor's Cup in which the Dutchmen led 4-0 and held on for dear life throughout the third period.
The Engineers (3-10-2, 4-19-4) face Colgate and Cornell this weekend needing to get on a big hot streak in February to avoid the first round.