While some may see Minnesota Duluth’s controversial 3-2 overtime loss to Northeastern in the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four semifinals as the final chapter of the 2020-21 Bulldogs’ story, coach Maura Crowell does not.

The crushing defeat in Erie, Pennsylvania, wasn’t the start of something new, either.

For Crowell and the Bulldogs, they believe their story is only halfway through with almost the exact same cast of characters coming back in 2021-22, thanks in part to the COVID-19 rules put in place during a tumultuous season played amidst a deadly pandemic.

UMD will return at least 19 of its 23 players next season from a team that this year was just under 90 seconds away from winning the WCHA regular season title and a goal short of playing for the national championship.

Minnesota Duluth's Naomi Rogge (9) and Clara Van Wieren (25) react after losing in overtime to Northeastern during an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game on Thursday, March 18, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth's Naomi Rogge (9) and Clara Van Wieren (25) react after losing in overtime to Northeastern during an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game on Thursday, March 18, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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If the 2020-21 UMD women’s hockey season was Avengers: Infinity War, then Crowell and company hope 2021-22 is Endgame — minus a sad funeral at the end, of course.

“Devastating the way it ended in overtime, it's brutal,” Crowell said. “Sudden death overtime on the biggest stage and the biggest moment and the way it happened — it's tough. But it didn't take me long to start reflecting on the season and how we put the program back on the map and what's to come ahead.”

Among those 19 returnees for UMD will be the entirety of its top three forward lines, including the three leading goal scorers from 2020-21 in senior wing Anna Klein (11), junior center Gabbie Hughes (10) and freshman wing Clara Van Wieren (7).

The only forward the Bulldogs lose is fourth-line senior wing Monique Aanenson, who is one of three UMD seniors along with defenseman McKenzie Revering and goaltender Hanna Markel who are moving on despite the NCAA not counting 2020-21 toward anyone’s eligibility.

Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) high-fives teammates after scoring on Minnesota State in the third period on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / File / News Tribune)
Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) high-fives teammates after scoring on Minnesota State in the third period on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / File / News Tribune)

Klein, an All-WCHA second-team selection along with Hughes, is taking the NCAA up on its offer to play a fifth season, as is senior defenseman, captain and second-team All-American Ashton Bell, though Bell may not be able to play that fifth season in 2021-22 if she is selected to centralize with the Canadian Women’s National Team in the leadup to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. In that case, she would return to UMD for a final season in 2022-23.

Even without Bell — the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year — the Bulldogs return five of their seven defensemen, plus two of their three goaltenders. One of those netminders is junior Emma Soderberg, who was named the WCHA Goaltender of the Year, first-team all-league and a second-team All-American after posting a 1.51 goals against average and .945 save percentage.

UMD has six freshmen signed to National Letters of Intent for 2021-22 and Crowell said all six will be coming in next season.

Crowell said she isn’t anxious about diving into what has been an “active” and “crazy” transfer portal this offseason, though the program may look at bringing in a transfer for one season like it did with former Mercyhurst goaltender Jess Convery in 2017-18 when Maddie Rooney was centralized with the U.S. Women’s National Team and later the Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Minnesota Duluth forward Ashton Bell (26) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning goal against Colgate during an NCAA quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021 at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Bulldogs won 1-0 to advance to the NCAA Women's Frozen Four. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth forward Ashton Bell (26) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning goal against Colgate during an NCAA quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021 at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Bulldogs won 1-0 to advance to the NCAA Women's Frozen Four. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“It would have to be for the right person, and the right person only,” Crowell said. “I'm pretty particular about who we bring into the program. It would really have to be the right person. Some of our opponents rely pretty heavily on that portal for their recruiting. We like to do it more grassroots and with a development slant. But again, if it's the right person, you figure things out, and you make room.”

Adding numbers to the banners

At Amsoil Arena, the Bulldogs hockey programs only hang individual banners for national championships, national player of the year honors like the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, and for retired numbers.

Conference championships, NCAA tournament berths and trips to the Frozen Four just get a number on a combined banner, something Crowell said her program was proud to add to this season.

“Obviously we wanted to hang another national championship banner, and we didn't do that, but I have a feeling it's coming soon,” Crowell said.

Adding any more numbers or even handing a new banner inside Amsoil Arena in 2021-22 will be a much tougher task than 2020-21 — no matter what the COVID-19 protocols may or may not look like.

It’s likely the WCHA — which will once again be an eight-team league with the addition of University of St. Thomas in St. Paul — will return to a balanced schedule after the chaos of 2020-21. UMD only played two games each against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota during the regular season, going 2-4 against the Badgers, Buckeyes and Gophers.

UMD will indeed need to improve on that record against the league’s best to not only erase what in the end was a two-point difference in the league standings between the Bulldogs and Badgers for the WCHA regular season title, but to return to the NCAA tournament.

The ECAC — which has sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in seven of the previous nine seasons — was only a four-team league in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, with eight members opting out. The league should be back to 12 teams again in 2021-22, and, assuming interconference play resumes in full, the Pairwise rankings will once again be used to determine the NCAA tournament’s field instead of a subjective committee.

Disappointed the selection committee only selected three teams instead of four for this year’s eight-team field, the WCHA will be fortunate if the Pairwise gives the league three bids in 2021-22 — something that has happened only three times in the previous nine seasons.

“Getting there is so hard, first of all. It's so hard to get to the NCAA tournament, especially out of the WCHA,” Crowell said. “We've got to be top two or top three in our league in order to do it, and right now it's Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and us, so those are heavyweights, if I've ever heard of any.”

Play like a favorite

Wisconsin goaltender Kennedy Blair (29) gives up a goal to Minnesota Duluth forward Anna Klein (19) in the first period Friday, Feb. 26, at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Wisconsin goaltender Kennedy Blair (29) gives up a goal to Minnesota Duluth forward Anna Klein (19) in the first period Friday, Feb. 26, at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

To overcome the increased odds in 2021-22, Crowell said her team will need to look at themselves not as the underdogs they once were considered, but the national power they proved to be in 2020-21 by not only making the NCAA tournament, but ousting ECAC regular and postseason champion Colgate 1-0 in overtime to reach the Frozen Four.

The Bulldogs lost a number of key games in 2020-21 that they either led or were tied in late. Among those was a 4-2 home loss to Minnesota on Nov. 27 in which the Bulldogs led 2-0 after the first period; a 4-3 home loss to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale on Feb. 27 for the WCHA title in which UMD led 3-1 in the second and 3-2 with 90 seconds to play; and then the loss to Northeastern at the Frozen Four after leading 2-0 going into the third period.

In all three situations, Crowell said the “favorites” were able to rally for the win because they never believed they were going to lose those games. The Bulldogs will need that kind of confidence and swagger going into 2021-22 if they hope to finish what they started in 2020-21, Crowell said.

“Being the underdog all the time, it's a good thing, but it can also be a tough thing,” Crowell said. “(The favorites) assume that they're going to win and they just continue to play like they're going to win. I'd like to see our mentality in those spots get a little tougher in terms of continuing to push.”

Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell talks to her players during a timeout in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. The 1-0 overtime win over Colgate was Crowell's 100th win as Minnesota Duluth head coach. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell talks to her players during a timeout in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal game on Monday, March 15, 2021, at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania. The 1-0 overtime win over Colgate was Crowell's 100th win as Minnesota Duluth head coach. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)