Minnesota Duluth’s season was already over when the NCAA women’s hockey tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After being ousted from the WCHA Final Faceoff via a 4-1 semifinal loss to Wisconsin on March 7, the Bulldogs finished as the second-to-last team left out of a tournament ranked ninth in the Pairwise behind No. 8 Boston University and the last at-large team in, No. 7 Clarkson.

Yet, the cancellation still had an impact on fifth-year UMD coach Maura Crowell.

“It's hard to say that the last couple weeks haven't affected the way that you look back and see things,” Crowell said. “It's been such a massive change in our world’s culture and I do think it impacts the way that you reflect.”

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For Crowell and the Bulldogs, an NCAA tournament berth and shot at a national championship was more than just a pipe dream for the program in 2019-20. That was their finish line and when UMD came up a couple strides short of that goal with the loss to the Badgers, it stung.

Recent events have changed Crowell’s outlook, however. In the weeks that passed, the coach has been able to reflect on the progress her program made by posting an 18-12-6 overall record, ending a run of back-to-back sub-.500 seasons following the NCAA tournament run in 2016-17.

UMD finished fourth in the WCHA, going 11-8-5 in league play for its first winning season in the league since 2016-17.

The six ties overall eat at Crowell, however. At least half, if not more, could have been wins, including the three draws that resulted from the Bulldogs surrendering late leads.

Minnesota Duluth defenseman Ashton Bell (26) Wisconsin's and Britta Curl (17) compete in the semifinal round of the 2020 WCHA Final Faceoff on March 7 at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. (Jim Rosvold photo)
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Ashton Bell (26) Wisconsin's and Britta Curl (17) compete in the semifinal round of the 2020 WCHA Final Faceoff on March 7 at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. (Jim Rosvold photo)

Two ties came against Minnesota State-Mankato, which finished sixth in the WCHA. The Mavericks scored with 1:27 to play on Jan. 4 in the Minnesota Cup semifinals at Amsoil Arena to force a 2-2 draw. On Feb. 15 in Mankato, the Mavs got an extra-attacker goal with 23 seconds left for a 1-1 draw.

Then there was the regular season finale against Wisconsin on Feb. 23 at Amsoil Arena. UMD led by two with a minute to go, but the Badgers scored twice with the goalie pulled — with one coming on a power play — to knot the game at 5-5.

The Badgers were able to clinch the WCHA regular season title outright with the tie, while UMD missed out on its final chance to possibly climb into position for an at-large berth in an NCAA tournament that never got played.

“The reality is finishing eighth or ninth in the Pairwise is great in our sport, but in our sport you have to finish in the top seven if you’re not the (College Hockey America autobid) team,” Crowell said. “You’ve got to be in the top seven, and that’s our goal, and we came up a little short.”

Minnesota Duluth goaltender Maddie Rooney makes a save against Clarkson on Oct. 4 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth goaltender Maddie Rooney makes a save against Clarkson on Oct. 4 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Crowell credited this year’s senior class of co-captains Sydney Brodt and Jalyn Elmes, Maddie Rooney, Ryleigh Houston and Brooklynn Schugel for not only getting the program back in the NCAA tournament picture, but likely keeping the program in the hunt after they leave.

Crowell doesn’t expect the program to take the dip that it did following the 2016-17 run, with a trio of double-digit goal scorers coming back next season in sophomore forward Gabbie Hughes, junior forward Anna Klein and junior defenseman Ashton Bell.

Hughes put up 51 points, including 20 goals, this season to finish fifth in the WCHA in scoring and 10th in the nation. Bell led all WCHA defensemen in points and tied for sixth nationally with 11 goals and 21 assists. Both could be in the conversation for the Patty Kazmaier Award next year.

Klein had a career-season in 2019-20 as well with 13 goals and 14 assists and sophomore forward Kylie Hanley took a step late in the season, finishing with seven goals.

Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) raises her hand in the air after scoring her second goal of the game on an empty net in the third period against Ohio State on Feb. 8 at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) raises her hand in the air after scoring her second goal of the game on an empty net in the third period against Ohio State on Feb. 8 at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

The Bulldogs will also get Naomi Rogge — who had a combined 28 goals and 19 assists in her first two seasons — back in 2020-21 for her junior year after missing all of this season with a knee injury.

But Crowell admitted her team still needs more depth — especially on the front end — to climb higher in the WCHA and make the NCAA tournament. Their offensive production, at 2.75 goals per game this year after averaging 2.63 last season, needs to not only take a jump, but it needs be more balanced.

“If we can get some of those other kids producing a little bit more regularly, that would help,” Crowell said, “because certainly teams were keyed in on our Gabby-Klein-Brodt line.”

To replace the five graduating seniors, the Bulldogs are bringing in three forwards — Clara Van Wieren out of Shattuck St. Mary’s, Brieja Parent of Forest Lake and Katie Davis out of Edina — a dual-citizen defenseman in Nina Jobst-Smith and goaltender Viola ‘Jojo’ Chobak from the Chicago area for next season.

Minnesota Duluth goaltender Emma Soderberg (30) and defenseman Jalyn Elmes (20) defend their net against a shot from the Minnesota Whitecaps in the second period on Sept. 28, 2019 at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth goaltender Emma Soderberg (30) and defenseman Jalyn Elmes (20) defend their net against a shot from the Minnesota Whitecaps in the second period on Sept. 28, 2019 at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Crowell said the plan is for Chobak, a 19-year-old who deferred her enrollment a year, to backup Emma Soderberg, the 22-year-old Swedish national team goalie who has played in just nine games (with five starts) behind the Olympic gold medalist Rooney the last two years.

Both Van Wieren and Davis were part of Crowell’s gold-medal-winning U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team this year. Van Wieren has played for Crowell now at two U18 World Championships, and the Bulldogs coach expects Van Wieren to make an immediate impact in the WCHA thanks to her 5-foot-10 frame.

Jobst-Smith, a German national team prospect who's been living and playing in Western Canada the past three years, should also be an impact player on the blue line, Crowell said.

All of this has the coach confident that the only construction her program will be doing in 2020-21 is building off the strides made in 2019-20.

“To be in the conversation of being in the top eight in the country is a huge improvement from where we've been as a program,” Crowell said. “That's something we're proud of and certainly we want to be in the tournament and we want to be vying for a championship. And we'll continue to work on that goal.”