Last Sunday, the Minnesota Duluth women's hockey team gathered in its locker room at Amsoil Arena, nervously waiting to find out if it would be included in the eight-team field for the NCAA tournament. After all, the Bulldogs a day earlier lost 7-2 to Ohio State in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Faceoff, not the closing argument for which they were hoping.
When the announcement came that the Bulldogs were in as the No. 5 seed, the players celebrated with shouts of delight.
"After the game on Saturday, we all thought we didn't put ourselves in the best situation, so we were all really nervous and anxious,'' senior forward Anna Klein said. "But it all turned out in our favor. It was really exciting.''
Added coach Maura Crowell: "This year of all years, we weren't sure what was going to happen. That was genuine reaction of sweet relief.''
Relief turns to competition at 6 p.m. Monday in Erie, Pa., when the Bulldogs (11-6) face No. 4 seed Colgate (15-6-1) in a quarterfinal
Because of COVID-19, the NCAA is holding the entire tournament at the Erie Insurance Arena rather than quarterfinals on campus sites. Monday's other quarterfinal has No. 1 seed Northeastern facing No. 8 Robert Morris at 1 p.m. On Tuesday, No. 2 Wisconsin plays No. 7 Providence at 1 p.m., and No. 3 Ohio State meets No. 6 Boston College at 6 p.m. Semifinals will be played Thursday and the championship on Saturday.
The Bulldogs closed their regular season by winning six of their final seven games, highlighted by a 4-2 victory over Wisconsin on Feb. 26 in Duluth. The next day, with the WCHA title on the line, the Badgers edged the Bulldogs 4-3 in overtime.
"The best team performance we had was on that Friday night when we beat them 4-2,'' Crowell said. "It was never in doubt, which is hard to say against Wisconsin. Everybody was clicking.''
The showing against the defending national champions certainly helped Minnesota Duluth's case with the NCAA women's hockey committee, which selected the four at-large teams to go along with the four teams that advanced by winning their conference tournaments. Also in the Bulldogs' favor was a split against Ohio State.
Noticeably absent from the tournament for the first time since 2007 are the Gophers (11-8-1). Minnesota posted 4-2 and 2-1 wins at Minnesota Duluth in November, and their January series at Ridder Arena was canceled because of COVID-19. The Gophers faced a difficult schedule, going 0-4-1 against Wisconsin and 2-4 against Ohio State. The final NCAA at-large spot went to Providence (12-7-1), so the committee ultimately put the Friars in the field over the Gophers. During the Final Faceoff, Crowell made a case to include four WCHA teams in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs are in the NCAA field for the first time since 2017, and they bring a strong top line featuring Klein (11 goals, 10 assists, 21 points), Gabbie Hughes (10-10-20) and Taylor Anderson (3-7-10). They also have received scoring depth from forwards Naomi Rogge (4-7-11) and Anneke Linser (3-7-10), plus production on the blue line from converted forward Ashton Bell (3-10-13), the WCHA's defensive player of the year.
Crowell credits Klein, a former Edina standout, for steady play throughout her career.
"She has been really good over the years, but her stats this year really popped up,'' Crowell said. "I've been saying for a few years that she is one of the most consistent players on our team. She has a super-high compete level and hates to lose. She raises the bar high for everyone else.''
Backstopping it all for the Bulldogs is Emma Soderberg, the WCHA goaltender of the year. The junior from Jarved, Sweden, provided a seamless transition from graduated Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney. Soderberg has started every game for the Bulldogs, posting a 1.65 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and four shutouts.
"Emma is killing it,'' Klein said. "She's such a strong and steady force back there.''
Minnesota Duluth can reach its first Frozen Four since 2010 with a victory over Colgate, and the one-site format is to Crowell's liking.
"It's pretty fun if you think about it. It has a lot more excitement with eight teams running around,'' she said. "Throughout COVID, there have been a million silver linings that we've learned. Maybe this is a thing that could stay.''