A month ago, asking University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller about her team’s chances for postseason glory would most likely have drawn raised shoulders and a questioning look.
With a third of her 18 scholarship players either on the bench for long stretches of time with serious or season-ending injuries, Miller counted herself lucky if she could field a team and win a few games.
Gone for the season were senior forward Juliane Jubinville and junior forward Samantha Hough, two anchors of the team in attacking and penalty killing. And then throw in freshman goalie Kim Martin, most famous for carrying Sweden to a penalty shootout win over the U.S. in the 2006 Olympics. She was the Bulldogs’ top starter before her injury.
As so often happens, adversity has led to triumph, excluding a rough patch of ice in late November and early December when the Bulldogs went 1-7-1. They have weathered the storm and are starting to peak when it counts. The one win during that stretch, by the way, was the lone defeat for 2006 NCAA Wisconsin, a morale boost to a battered and bruised team if ever there was one. “We played out of our minds when our backs were against the wall,” Miller said. They narrowly lost the second game 1-0.
The Bulldogs now have a 6-0-1 unbeaten streak, moving them to 15-7-2 overall and 14-5-1 in the WCHA. That mark is good for second place, four games behind Wisconsin. The two teams will meet again Feb. 2-3 in Duluth.
“What happened is we had good team chemistry and we worked extremely hard,” Miller said. “Other kids embraced the opportunity and it’s become challenging to them. I think we coped extremely well given the situation.”
In Martin’s absence, senior Ritta Schaublin has carried the load. She struggled early in the season, but she’s showing signs of returning to the form that has won her back-to-back First Team All-USCHO honors. A Swiss National Team goalie, she is 10-3-2 this season.
Normally a team that likes to take chances and score a lot, Miller said UMD has been looking for more low-scoring victories this season.
“I had to adjust my coaching style and focus a lot more on defense,” she said. “We have to deny them scoring chances.”
Among the players who have helped fill the gap caused by the injuries is freshman forward Emmanuelle Blais, who is from Quebec. She has 19 points in 24 games, good for fourth on the team, and her coach is very high on her. “She is one of the players who has stepped up,” said Miller, praising her work ethic and the energy she brings to the ice.
Blais said she is fortunate to have gotten the chance to show the coaching staff what she’s capable of so early in her career. “But as a team altogether we stepped up and worked hard,” she said, shifting credit from herself. “We focused on who was there not who wasn’t.”
“Even though we’ve struggled, this year has been a pleasure,” said Blais. “Our team chemistry is very good and I think it will be very important to get players back in the stretch.”
Four players, including Martin, should be back for the stretch run, a possibility that has Miller dreaming of Frozen Fours. The Bulldogs won three straight national championships from 2001 to 2003. Since then, they’ve not been to the Frozen Four. Each of the last two seasons they have been eliminated by St. Lawrence in the NCAA tournament.
Martin did manage to play in 11 games (6-4-0) (eliminating the possibility of redshirting) before an old tear in her right knee acted up again and forced to the sidelines. She should be good to go this weekend when the Bulldogs travel to Columbus for a pair against Ohio State, a team they lost to during the 1-7-1 stretch. They also dropped two to Harvard and two to Minnesota during that period.
Martin said it has been hard to watch from the bench, but she said she’s very proud of how her team has held up. Even though her knee gives her constant pain, “I always want to play,” she said.
She came to Duluth because she knew of Miller and because another player from Sweden, Elin Holmlov, who is also injured, was already there. Besides the two Swedish national team players, the Bulldogs have two Finnish and one Swiss national team player.
Miller said her name is known in Europe from Olympic play and because she coached the Canadian National Team to a silver medal in the 1998 Olympics and three straight gold medals (1992, 1994, 1997) at the Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships. This helps her recruit top players from abroad who also follow their teammates West. “We’re fortunate to get them,” she said. “They’re not the [Julie] Chus or the [Sarah] Vaillancourts,” she said, referring to Harvard’s U.S. and Canadian Olympians, but they’re still very good and are always on our first or second lines.”
Like Martin, Blais was well aware of Miller’s history when she came to UMD. “I knew a lot about her because she coached in Canada and everything I heard about her is true,” said Blais, who was also pursued by St. Lawrence and Wisconsin.
Miller, Martin and Blais are confident they’ll have a successful stretch run that will continue into the postseason. Miller thinks the team will end up ranked seventh nationally – where they’ve been much of the season – enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs although she’s not counting out getting the automatic by winning the WCHA post-season tournament.
“I learned a lot about my team this year,” said Miller. “When our backs were against the wall, we showed we could come through. People on this team like each other and that’s important. It’s all about character.”