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Bulldogs remain optimistic even after rocky start

Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller had high aspirations at the start of the season, gunning for a top-three finish in the WCHA and a return to the NCAA Division I tournament.

Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller had high aspirations at the start of the season, gunning for a top-three finish in the WCHA and a return to the NCAA Division I tournament.
“National championship” was even tossed around by the coach and her players.
A month into the season, however, the Bulldogs have just two wins in regulation - and another in a shootout for their lone home victory - three losses by three-plus goals and a 1-4-1-1 win-loss-tie-shootout win record in WCHA play that leaves the team in sixth place.
Still, Miller has not stepped back one bit from her preseason proclamations.
“I told you (media members) it’s the best team we had in three years,” Miller said. “There is no question it’s the best team we’ve had in three years. We’re good and we’re going to be great one day.”
Despite the lackluster results, Miller and her players remain optimistic going into this weekend’s nonconference home games against Lindenwood (1-3-0) at
3:07 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Amsoil Arena because the Bulldogs have arguably played the toughest schedule in the WCHA, if not the country, to start 2014-15.
The lineup that has included at least three freshmen and six sophomores every game has improved each week, according to senior defenseman and captain Emma Stauber of Duluth.
“We’re real young and I’m really proud of the team,” Stauber said. “We had one of the toughest schedules so far in the first four weeks and, hopefully, it will only get better from here. We didn’t get as many wins as we wanted, but it’s a learning process.
“The last four games have been really, really good for us.”
The Bulldogs are 1-2-1-1 in their last four games, which includes a 3-0 loss at home to No. 1 Minnesota, a 3-3 shootout win over the Gophers, a 2-1 loss in overtime at No. 9 North Dakota and a 1-0 victory the following night in which the Bulldogs outshot their foe 31-16.
Those four games were very different than the Bulldogs’ opening four games, which included a surprise 4-4 tie at Connecticut to start the season and a pair of home losses to No. 2 Wisconsin in which UMD was outscored 10-3 and outshot 77-39.
“There wasn’t enough time to get ready for Wisconsin; that’s just the reality,” Miller said. “If you watched us play against Wisconsin and then the next weekend against Minnesota, we took it up a giant, giant step. Then we took it up another giant step heading to North Dakota. As long as my players stay in the mindset of taking big steps forward, we should be even better this weekend.”
Among the most improved players from the first four games to the next four is junior goaltender Kayla Black, who had to be pulled from the net against Connecticut and again against the Badgers. Since not finishing vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 4, Black has played every minute with a 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
“We all knew we had goaltending issues in the first couple games we played,” Miller said. “(Black) has been very consistent the last four games and she’s been very good the last four games. I hope she brings that attitude, competitiveness, consistency and preparation so she can compete and be consistent. It starts with the attitude.”
After playing ranked opponents each of the last three weeks, the Bulldogs are scheduled to see just one - No. 5 Cornell comes to Duluth on Nov. 21-22 - until they play North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota in three consecutive weekends between Jan. 30 and Valentine’s Day.
Unlike last season when UMD struggled against some second-division teams, senior forward Zoe Hickel doesn’t foresee that happening again.
“We have learned so much in these last three weeks,” she said. “We’re getting a rhythm as a team and getting on step.”
Lindenwood (1-3) at UMD (2-4-2)
What: Nonconference series
When: 3:07 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Amsoil Arena
Fast fact: This is the first meeting between the teams
Internet: http://www.nchc.tv/umd

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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