Sure, there were signs that three-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth would be in for a tough time in Mankato last weekend. Consider a UMD team that was already adjusting to the loss of 12 players from its previous season, strip it of its head coach and four players (including two Canadian national representatives) for the weekend, and put an All-Conference goalie in the opposing net, then there was bound to be trouble.
But it was still stunning to see UMD drop two games to Minnesota State this past weekend. This series matched up one program whose all-time NCAA tournament win total (six) nearly exceeded the other’s all-time WCHA conference win total (seven). Yet the Mavericks didn’t seem to care much about history in rolling to 4-3 and 3-2 wins.
Did this weekend seal the end of the UMD dynasty? Don’t count on it. The Bulldogs have taken their lumps in the past when they’ve been missing players, and still come out golden in the end. UMD was trounced by 8-0 and 4-0 scores by Minnesota en route to the 2001 NCAA title, and also suffered sweeps to Wisconsin and Minnesota through its revolving-door roster during the 2002 Olympic season.
It’ll be much harder for UMD to bounce back to the championship level this time. As the Mavericks already proved, the league competition will be much tighter this time around, which makes a Frozen Four berth harder to come by. And Bulldog coach Shannon Miller knows that this year’s roster with 10 freshmen can’t match the experience that those three NCAA championship teams brought at the outset of every season.
Miller wasn’t there to witness her team’s undoing in Mankato. In serving a one-game suspension for behavior during the 2003 WCHA tournament, she opted to recruit in Quebec over the long weekend. Miller had enough foresight to anticipate some trouble in Mankato. Before assistants Stacy Wilson and Ira Turunen left, they talked about the possibility of losing over the weekend.
The magnitude of the result still came as a surprise, however.
“I wasn’t surprised at a loss,” Miller said. “I was surprised by two losses.”
Two Duluth losses had been Mankato’s dream for months. The Mavericks saw who was on the schedule to start the season, and seized the opportunity to establish themselves at the elite level for the first time.
“The focus since our kids came in August was to get ourselves ready to play Duluth the first weekend of the season,” said Minnesota State coach Jeff Vizenor, who may have already made himself the clear-cut frontrunner for WCHA coach of the year.
“Everything we’ve done from lifting, to running, to on ice has been with the focus that we wanted to beat Minnesota-Duluth. We as a coaching staff truly believed and our players believed that we could play with them and that we could beat them. I think as the game went on, and it stayed close, and we kept scoring goals, our kids just kept on getting stronger and scoring more.”
Duluth’s season began much like the last ended, with Nora Tallus scoring to put the Bulldogs ahead. But in what would be a reoccurring theme for the weekend, the Mavericks scored on the power play within minutes to even the score. UMD never had the lead again for the rest of the weekend.
In total for the two games, the Bulldogs picked up an astounding 46 penalty minutes for the weekend, leading to 18 Mankato power plays and five power-play goals. On the other end, Maverick senior goaltender Shari Vogt was as good as advertised, making 30 saves — including 16 in the final period — for Friday’s 4-3 win, and 42 saves in Saturday’s 3-2 win.
“You have to credit Mankato. They obviously did a good job preparing their team,” Miller said. “My assistant coach [Wilson] said [Vogt] was unbeatable basically in both games. Good for her.”
On the offensive end, Vizenor watched the line of upperclassmen Katie Heinrich, Devon Nichols and Melanie Salatino step up right before his eyes. Nichols and Salatino accounted for three of the four goals on Friday and two of three goals on Saturday. Two freshmen, 5-11 Shera Vis and Cara Hendry, accounted for the other two scores.
Vogt and forward Amanda Osborn are the team’s only seniors, who have made up for their lack of experience with strength in leadership. Vizenor, now starting his third year, has built a competitive program underneath them. After four years of lingering near the bottom of the WCHA, Mankato has shown it can tangle with the best, which is only good news for the growth of college hockey.
“We’ve sold kids on a vision of a program that we’re going to build up, and the values and believes we wanted to build the program on,” Vizenor said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had kids buy into that. Each year the recruits that we’ve been getting are stronger and the pool of talent is getting deeper each year. The fruits of our labor are starting to show right now.”
Where do the two programs go from here? Both rosters are stacked with freshmen and have plenty of room to grow.
UMD should make the faster strides forward simply because of the bodies they will be getting back. Caroline Ouellette and Krista McArthur will return soon from the Canadian national camp. Freshman Noemie Marin, a player with Canadian U-22 hockey experience, will soon return from duty with the Canadian softball team. In the longer term, Duluth will look for sophomore transfer Bethany Petersen to recover from gall bladder surgery, and Jen Lipman will join the team next semester.
Miller says Duluth’s competitive disadvantage and lack of team coherence could be due to more than just injuries and national team departures. She says every season, UMD has struggled with ice time during the month of October. While the team does get some afternoon practices, it often has to practice at 6 p.m. when about half the team has night classes.
“Let’s get real, if you want to be serious about it, you can’t play as a team if you want to practice as a team,” Miller said. “Every year we’ve had to go through this for a month, and every year we’ve survived it because we’ve had so much talent on our roster. When you turn around and you have 10 rookies of 21 spots, obviously you can’t just assume you’re going to walk through October without some lumps when you’re not practicing together.”
Vizenor, while giving credit to his own team, recognized the struggles UMD was going through with a green roster.
“You can’t replace the kids that they graduated,” Vizenor said. “[Last weekend] I think they had a lot of players in new roles they hadn’t played before. I think that led to us having more success on the special teams that we hadn’t had in the past on them.”
As the past three seasons have proven though, you can never count UMD out. March is a long way away.
“Starting in November we get a regular ice lot and we shouldn’t have more than two or three kids missing, which is probably normal for most teams,” Miller said. “I think we will develop rapidly as a team once we can practice as a team starting in November. Until that point, we’ve got to do the best we can, accept the results, and move forward.”
While Miller is in the unfamiliar position of rebounding from consecutive season-opening defeats going into a series with Bemidji State this weekend, Vizenor is in the unfamiliar position of preventing a letdown against North Dakota after the weekend’s exhilarating, landmark victories.
“We feel that we’re doing everything we can as coaches to feel the confidence of this win and enjoy it, but know that our goal this season wasn’t to win two games,” Vizenor said. “It’s one step in a long road. We still want to be playing our best hockey in March. I think our players will be ready to play North Dakota.”