With back-to-back NCAA championships already under their belt, much of the talk surrounding the Bulldogs this year is about a three-peat.
Head coach Shannon Miller, however, talks about a single championship.
“Sure, we’ve got two championships,” she said. “But every year you have new players and a new team. We lost five players from last season and added five new ones, so this team hasn’t won a championship.”
However, winning the title this year would hold a special significance. Since 1998, the first year of the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance championship, no team has won a national title on home ice. This year, UMD will be hosting the Women’s Frozen Four at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
“Do we talk about it,” Miller said. “Sure we do. Is it a goal for us? Yes, it is. But we don’t put any pressure on ourselves to win it this year.”
They may not put pressure on themselves, but others will be quick to point out that they have the inside track to winning their third consecutive title. UMD returns the bulk of its offense in senior forwards Erica Holst, Maria Rooth and Hanne Sikio.
Despite missing significant playing time last year due to commitments to their respective national teams, the trio combined for 54 goals and 109 points.
The Bulldogs also showed they had depth up front at crunch time last season. Of the six goals they scored in a pair of 3-2 wins at the Frozen Four, only one, by Holst, came from their top three forwards. Tricia Guest and Joanne Eustace scored the game-winners while Kristina Petrovskaia and Jenny Hempel also provided offense up front and return this season.
UMD gets even stronger up front this season with the return of Jenny Potter and the addition of Caroline Ouellette.
Potter (nee Schmidgall) missed the 2000-01 season after giving birth and then spent last year with the U.S. National Team. After transferring from Minnesota in 1999-2000, she scored 41 goals and 93 points to lead the Bulldogs to WCHA regular season and playoff championships.
Ouellette won a gold medal last season as a member of Team Canada.
“We’ve got enough talent now to spread throughout three lines,” Miller said. “We’ve got a lot of depth.”
If the team’s scoring prowess isn’t enough, UMD also returns junior Patricia Sautter in goal. The team’s number-two netminder most of the year, she posted a 15-1-3 record with 1.47 goals against average and a .928 save percentage.
Sautter also came up big in the clutch. With Tuula Puputti battling an injury suffered in the Olympics, it was Sautter whom Miller went to at the Frozen Four and the Switzerland native responded with two victories, including a 33-save effort in the title game.
“We’re in a good situation with our goaltending,” Miller said. “Sautter was our number two last year but was good enough to be number one. We won the title with our backup goalie and now she starts this season with a lot of confidence.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs return their top four blueliners; depth is not necessarily a concern for Miller, who uses several different systems, including the “torpedo,” which features only one defenseman on the ice. It was the torpedo system that UMD used to win the title in Durham, N.H., last season.
Larissa Luther, who scored 11 goals during her rookie campaign, and junior Satu Kiipeli are the team’s top offensive threats from the blue line. Navada Russell is the lone senior of the group while sophomore Julianne Vasichek rounds out the group of top returners.
“It really depends on what system we use,” Miller said of the need for depth on defense. “If we play regular, 5-on-5 hockey, we have our pairs set and we have some other people who can play.
“If we play the torpedo, we only have one defenseman on ice. The advantage of the system is that you only really need three strong defensemen and you need depth at forward, which we have.”
Miller likes the way things look this year.
“We have a small roster this year,” she said. “We’ve only got 22 players, with 19 skaters, so everyone should get lots of ice time and people should be happy with their playing time.
“Our goal this year is the same as it is every year, and that is to get better. We want to be better in November than we were in March.”
The Bulldogs may well be better this year than they were last year, but that may not mean much.
“We’ve got five very strong teams,” Miller said of the WCHA. “We’ve got two that aren’t far off and can compete with anyone on a given night so you always have to be ready.”
Miller will find out early how her team can expect to fare at season’s end. By Thanksgiving they will have played Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road, in addition to their season opener, Oct. 12-13, at Providence. The Bulldogs will play the opener without the services of Eustace and Ouellette, who will be attending Team Canada’s development camp.
This much cannot be disputed; the road to this year’s NCAA championship goes through Duluth.