With a win over Bemidji State in Game 3 of a first-round WCHA playoff series at Amsoil Arena, the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey program likely would have joined league rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota in the NCAA tournament.
But the Bulldogs aren’t spending this weekend in Minneapolis or Madison to play the Gophers or Badgers, or even in Boston to face Boston College or Harvard since they didn’t beat the Beavers in Game 3. UMD lost 2-1 in overtime March 1 to not only end their 2014-15 season, but the 16-year run of head coach Shannon Miller as well. The program missed the WCHA Final Face-Off for the second time in three seasons and the NCAA tournament for the fourth season in a row.
It was not the outcome Miller had hoped for in the preseason or targeted after the university announced on Dec. 15 it would not extend her contract beyond this season.
“We deserved a better fate; I felt we were the better team,” Miller said about the loss to Bemidji State. “It’s heartbreaking when you’re ranked No. 6 in the country going into the game and all you have to do is win it to advance to the WCHA tournament and you got a really good shot at being in the NCAA (tournament).”
So the search begins for UMD’s next coaching staff with the contracts of Miller and her assistant coaches, Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury, set to expire June 30. UMD hopes to have a pool of finalists by mid-April and a new hire in play by the middle of June.
But the bench isn’t the only leadership void the Bulldogs are looking to replace. UMD must find new leaders on the ice as well with seven seniors departing from this year’s squad that finished 20-12-5 overall — good for a tie for ninth in the final PairWise rankings — and 14-10-4, good for fourth, in the WCHA.
Four of this year’s seven seniors — forwards Zoe Hickel, Jenna McParland and Brienna Gillanders, and defenseman Emma Stauber — were captains in 2014-15 with Hickel and Stauber serving as captains as juniors as well. No one else on this season’s roster that included three juniors, six sophomores and eight freshmen has ever served as a captain at the college level.
Miller said her entire senior class, especially the captains, played key roles, considering everything the program went through, from the continuing controversy surrounding Miller’s contract to strength and conditioning coach/equipment manager Julianne “Montana” Vasichek going through a liver transplant during the Bemidji State playoff series. But Miller prefers to focus on the good times.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “Zoe was a little bit of trouble when she first came, and we laugh about it now. She giggles about it. So was Brigette Lacquette and Jenna McParland. Oh, they were a handful.
“Once we got them focused and got them working, they were good kids, good student-athletes, good players, good people, good role models for the younger players. … They had four good years, it’s just too bad the last semester wasn’t what we all would like to believe it could be, and we’ll never know.”
Hickel, who is a finalist for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, was the team’s leading scorer with 32 points. Her 19 goals were a team and career-high.
Hickel also was named to the United States roster for the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship that begins at the end of the month in Malmo, Sweden. Lacquette was named to the Canadian roster on Thursday after finishing with seven goals and 18 assists to lead all UMD defenseman in scoring.
“The seniors were such a good class and the girls were such an amazing team to be a part of. The leadership and seniors are really proud of this team. It’s such a good group,” Hickel said. “I’ll never forget these experiences. I really hope and I believe that the girls that are still going to be here are going to learn from this.”
While some players indicated after the announcement that Miller’s contract would not be renewed they and some of their teammates may look to play elsewhere next season, UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said early this week that no one had yet asked to transfer. If that holds, the Bulldogs will bring back three of their top five scorers — all juniors-to-be.
Forward Ashleigh Brykaliuk was the team’s second-leading scorer with 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points. Lara Stalder, who played defenseman as a freshman before transitioning to forward this year, finished a point back with 10 goals and 19 assists. Forward Katerina Mrazova posted the same numbers as Lacquette — seven goals and 18 assists.
Defensively, the Bulldogs return freshman Linnea Hedin, freshman Jessica Healey and sophomore Sidney Morin.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs will get back junior goaltender Kayla Black, who had a 1.73 goals-against average and .935 save percentage and set UMD records for shutouts in a season (10) and career (19).
“The one place where we don’t have a hole, where we’ve struggled with the last three years, is goaltending,” Miller said. “Leadership will be lacking, and probably depth.”
But that will be another coach’s concern from now on.