From 2000 until 2010, UMD was the pre-eminent program in women's NCAA hockey. The Bulldogs won five national championships (2001-2003, 2008, 2010), while playing for the 2007 championship and making the 2009 Frozen Four.
But 2011 was the last time UMD qualified for the NCAA Tournament. We all know the Shannon Miller saga that followed, and we all know that Maura Crowell was named the second head coach in program history in April 2015.
Now, in just her second season at the helm, Crowell has led the Bulldogs back into the national tournament. And Saturday afternoon, UMD will host an NCAA playoff game for the first time since its last national title in 2010. The Bulldogs welcome their longtime rival Minnesota Gophers, with the winner moving on to the NCAA Women's Frozen Four next week in St. Charles, Mo.
"To be one of eight teams left is a huge honor," UMD senior defenseman and assistant captain Sidney Morin said this week. "What an opportunity we have this weekend. I think we're all going to embrace it and have as much fun as we can."
"We knew we were going to have to play the Gophers at some point to get to the national championship, so why not do it here?," Crowell said. She talked about the familiarity between the two, with Saturday being the sixth meeting this season -- UMD is 3-2 -- and with their meeting last weekend at the WCHA Final Faceoff going into a second overtime before Lara Stalder's dramatic game-winning goal.
"Say we had an eastern team come out here we hadn't seen all year," she noted. "We'd have to made adjustments and break down a lot of video. We're quite familiar with the Gophers. We're able to focus on ourselves a lot more, make sure we're healthy and locked in for the game."
Minnesota coach Brad Frost, whose team has won four of the last five NCAA titles, really liked how the Gophers played in Saturday's game at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. Minnesota outshot UMD 63-41 and probably could have ended the game much earlier were it not for Bulldog goalie Maddie Rooney, who made 62 saves and was spectacular throughout the weekend.
"I was really proud and impressed with our team, and thought they played extremely well," Frost said this week. "Last Saturday here was Duluth's night, and they earned it. We're looking forward to getting another crack at them (this Saturday)."
The return of senior forward Dani Cameranesi -- whose brother, Tony, wrapped up a four-year run at UMD last season -- certainly boosted the Gophers a bit. She had been out since January with a lower-body injury, but put 14 shots on goal in Saturday's game against UMD. She'll likely be on the top line with Kelly Pannek, the nation's leading scorer, and sophomore Sarah Potomak, who has seen six of her 19 goals this year go for game-winners, and has shown a knack for scoring some big goals in her two short years at Minnesota.
UMD, of course, counters with some of the best seniors in the country. Stalder is a Patty Kazmaier Award finalist with 23 goals and 56 points in just 34 games. 14 of those goals and 27 of those points have come over the last 13 games. Captain Ashleigh Brykaliuk had a 19-game point streak snapped in the first round of the playoffs against St. Cloud State, but she still has 17 goals and 45 points. Katie McGovern earned her way to the top line with Brykaliuk and Stalder, and she's responded with by far her best season, scoring 17 goals and heading into Saturday with 34 points. Morin is the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, with eight goals, 24 points, and a plus-35 rating.
Don't discount UMD's depth. Freshman forward Sydney Brodt has 21 points and has shown real progress throughout the season. Senior forward Demi Crossman is a tremendous skater and two-way player who has potted some big goals. Forwards Kateřina Mrázová and Maria Lindh aren't big names, but they've given this team some quality minutes throughout the season. On the blue line, junior Jessica Healey and freshman Jalyn Elmes are both solid players who might not have big numbers, but can play quality minutes against top players.
While UMD lacks NCAA Tournament experience (something every non-freshman on the Minnesota roster sports), Crowell is quick to note that not only do all three coaches -- Duluth natives Laura Bellamy and Chris Connolly are the assistant coaches -- have NCAA Tournament experience (Connolly won an NCAA title at Boston University in 2009), but many of UMD's players (led by Stalder, a Swiss Olympian) have international experience. Brodt was part of a USA U-18 team that won gold last spring.
And UMD is playing at home. The Bulldog women might not draw the crowds the men do, but the players love being at Amsoil Arena. They've lost just once there this season, and the seniors have talked about making it a real advantage to play there.
"It's an unreal facility," Stalder said. "We love to be in our locker room, sleep at home, to have all those little things. We've shown we're pretty unstoppable at home, and we hope we can do that again Saturday."
"I love the scattered gold seats," Morin noted. "We practice here every day. We're comfortable here. I love it here."
No matter what happens Saturday, it will be the last home game for this stellar UMD senior class. They are hoping to make it a special one, and get UMD to its first Women's Frozen Four in seven years.