All season long, teams have been racking their brains in search of a sure-fire way of beating Wisconsin. Leave it to Minnesota-Duluth to come up with a fool-proof plan: donâ€™t do anything different.
The defending national champion Bulldogs worked that method to near-perfection last week, when they swept their two-game set with the Badgers, 4-0 and 4-3 in a shootout, WCHA-style.
As to why they were successful on back-to-back days, you can look to the the timely sniping of Laura Fridfinnson (two goals on Saturday) and Elin Holmlov (two more on Sunday). Or the superb netminding of Kim Martin, who is perhaps the best there is at her craft.
But if you ask Martin, the real secret to their success was simple. Relax and have fun.
And the fun was all theirs.
“We worked really hard,” said Martin while the Bulldogs bused south through the Iron Range to Mankato for this weekendâ€™s set, “but we didnâ€™t really work on anything special. We had fun. We were just excited to play again (after the break).”
The Wisconsin series rolled around just as the Bulldogs, who have always featured a strong international flavor, were reassembling back in Duluth from their homes, scattered across the Northern Hemisphere.
They had limited time to prep for the Badgers, who were rated No. 1 in the country at the time.
As it turns out, they didnâ€™t need it.
â€œWe only had one practice with the whole team,â€ Martin said. â€œWe just watched a lot of video, and kind of hung out together and become a team again.â€
Of course, no other team can boast of having a goaltender of Martinâ€™s caliber.
The junior from Stockholm, Sweden owns bronze and silver Olympic medals, and has backboned her Bulldogs to Frozen Four immortality.
But even Martin couldnâ€™t save UMD from its championship hangover. An early-season weekend sweep by Minnesota, followed by a tie and loss at St. Cloud left many to wonder what had happened to the â€˜Dogs.
Martin pulled much of the responsibility for UMDâ€™s meandering first half fortunes onto her own shoulder pads.
â€œIâ€™ve been struggling through the first half of the season,â€ she said. â€œI havenâ€™t played bad, but not as good as Iâ€™m used to. Iâ€™ve battled with concussions, and stuff like that. Maybe that has something to do with it. I guess there have been some unlucky bounces here and there. Thatâ€™s just how hockey life is.â€
As the seasonâ€™s second half gets underway, the Bulldogs sit 10 points back of WCHA leading Minnesota, and eight back of the Badgers. The clubs sit 1-2-3 in this weekâ€™s USCHO D-I rankings, and as no one needs to be reminded, have between them played in every Frozen Four tournament ever staged.
Since overtaking the teams ahead of them, Duluth will have to fatten up on the clubs below them, if they can, in order to pick up steam heading into the WCHA tourney.
Martin, though, said sheâ€™s not looking that far ahead.
â€œWe donâ€™t really talk much,â€ she said, â€œabout where we are. We look to the rankings to see where we are in the country. Weâ€™ll try to win all the games that are left, and see what happens in the end. When we go to the playoffs, weâ€™ll still have a chance to win everything.
â€œWeâ€™ll just keep looking forward to every game, and (hope) that everything is perfect at the end of the season.â€
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will be facing a Minnesota State club that has just undergone a coaching shakeup. Head coach Jeff Vizenor has been reassigned, while his two assistants, Paul Willett and Mandy Krause Rideout, have been named co-coaches for the remainder of the season.
The only other shared helm in the sport is at Clarkson, where the married couple of Shannon and Matt Desrosiers run the Golden Knights.