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UMD women's hockey storybook needs last-chapter revision

BOSTON -- It was an incredible ride, this storybook journey of the first UMD women's hockey team. To be a true storybook, though, required the perfect ending, and that last chapter was not forthcoming when the Bulldogs failed to claim the nationa...

BOSTON -- It was an incredible ride, this storybook journey of the first UMD women's hockey team. To be a true storybook, though, required the perfect ending, and that last chapter was not forthcoming when the Bulldogs failed to claim the national championship in Boston over the weekend.
It seemed too much for a reasonable person to hope for that the Bulldogs could make a genuine run at winning the Women's WCHA championship in their first season. They won it. Then came the league playoff, which they also won. In the course of those conquests, UMD, with a mixture of about eight scholarships, some walk-ons, and some refugees from the previous club team, had to defeat the University of Minnesota's three-year powerhouse, which had been to national tournaments its first two years.
Having proven 3-1-1 domination of the Gophers en route to earning the automatic West berth in the final four, it was deflating to lose 3-2 to the same Gophers in the semifinals on Friday. After that, it was fully understandable that the Bulldogs wouldn't have a thing left for the third-place game, and ultimately lost 5-4 to a Dartmouth team that was thrilled to take third.
It also might have been discouraging to the Bulldogs that Minnesota, after getting voted in ahead of the higher-ranked Harvard defending national champions, would go on and win the national championship with a 4-2 victory over No. 1 ranked Brown in Saturday night's final at Matthews Arena on the Northeastern campus.
But the UMD players handled the weekend in impressive style. There was disappointment, but no overflowing of tears. There was some bitterness about having engaged in two physically battering games. The Bulldogs accepted their penalties with minimal complaint, but had to question why their foes were not similarly penalized. But they only congratulated their opponents.
At the post-game interview sessions, the UMD players not only didn't complain or alibi, they wound up laughing, which proved they enjoyed the opportunity. This is a team that has had fun all season, and they treated the ultimate disappointment in the same context -- it wasn't going to ruin the fun of the season.
And, it left a carrot dangling out there ahead of them for next year.
"This was a new team and a new experience," said Maria Rooth, an import from Sweden and the second-leading scorer on the team. "Are there things we can take away from our experience here? Oh, yes."
Jenny Schmidgall had two goals and three assists out of the six goals scored by the Bulldogs in the tournament, and wound up with 41 goals, 52 assists for 93 points to lead the nation in a stunning season culminated by being named as the West's only All-American. As usual, despite still being criticized by Gopher followers for leaving that program's "team concept," Schmidgall only talked about the team.
"We played hard," Shmiggy said. "But we learned some things here, too. We know that when we're up 2-0 or 4-3, the game isn't over and we've got to keep playing our best to the finish. But the experience should just make us a better team next year."
The Bulldogs were up 2-0 on Minnesota in the semifinals as Schmidgall set up Rooth in the first period and Michelle McAteer in the second, and goalie Tuula Puputti was brilliant. The netminder was victimized when Minnesota's Nadine Muzerall, shooting a desperation try from the left side as she fell to the ice, got lucky as the off-target shot deflected off defenseman Pamela Pachal's skate and the ricochet went through Puputti's legs.
Midway through the final period, Muzerall scored again, coming out wide on a wraparound to score. The winner came two minutes later when Tracy Engstrom's shot from the left circle hit the right pipe and the carom hit Puputti in the back and dropped in. Both came on power plays, as referee Krista Knight, after calling seven penalties on the rugged Gophers and six on the Bulldogs through two periods, called only four penalties in the third period, all on UMD, which set up the Muzerall and Engstrom goals -- both on power plays.
Coach Shannon Miller, who put this team together from a start that consisted of a half-dozen scholarships, some pretty good walk-ons and a cluster of refugees from the former UMD club team, found the sudden one-sidedness of the calls unexplainable. "We deserved every penalty we got," she said. "But in front of the Gopher net, our players were getting knocked down with cross-checks and run over and knocked down, and that wasn't called."
Miller also praised her players for playing through that adversity, and she noted that despite having to kill four penalties, the Bulldogs outshot Minnesota 16-5 in the third period, making it 42-27 for the game. "That tells you that 5-on-5, we dominated," Miller said, proudly.
No question, the Bulldogs left everything on the Matthews Arena ice in that game. But they came back, gamely, in the third-place game Saturday afternoon. After falling behind 2-0, the Bulldogs rallied for a goal by Schmidgall in the second period, and goals by Erika Holst, Schmidgall and Rooth in the third to gain a 4-3 lead. However, Dartmouth freshman Carly Haggard got loose behind the defense twice to score on a break-in with a turnover and a breakaway with a long pass, and Dartmouth won 5-4.
Referee Sarah Perkins issued seven penalties to UMD to four for Dartmouth, even though Dartmouth's 6-foot defensemen Liz Macri and Correne Bredin flattened every UMD player that got near the net with heavy hits throughout the game.
Miller said she was proud of how her team played through that adversity, but being emotionally spent and then having to use up so much of her top players physically to kill penalties was tough to overcome. UMD got only 22 shots, meaning Dartmouth goalie Meaghan Cahill became the first opposing goalie to make fewer than 20 saves, with 18, against a Bulldog team that averaged 47 shots a game all season.
A Boston reporter asked Miller about her team "taking so many penalties."
"Wait a minute," Miller said. "Taking a lot of penalties, or being given a lot of penalties? There's a difference. It was very physical out there, and we were given some penalties, but we controlled what we could -- we didn't hit back, we didn't slash, we didn't run people."
After Minnesota won the championship game by building a 4-1 lead on goals by Courtney Kennedy and Laura Slominski in the second period, and by Nadine Muzerall -- her 49th -- and Winny Brodt in the third, Kennedy, a big and rugged defenseman, acknowledged that the Bulldogs could have the state championship as long as the Gophers, who beat UMD only twice in six tries, could have the national championship trophy.
Miller was right on with her assessment of the tournament.
"Going into the tournament, I thought the winner of our game against Minnesota would take the hardware home," Miller said. "The Gophers have a very good team with good size and strength, just like we have. It didn't surprise me that they won the championship. We were one goal shy of making it to the big game."
So the perfect storybook ending wasn't forthcoming for UMD's first-year wonders. Or maybe it was destined to be a two-year storybook before the Bulldogs find the happy ending.

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