Yes, it was the plan from Day One but even the Minnesota Duluth coaching staff will admit they didn't necessarily see things working out this well.
Even before the season started Bulldogs head coach Maura Crowell and her staff had an idea. Fresh off a landmark freshman season that propelled Gabbie Hughes to WCHA All-Rookie Team and WCHA All-Third Team honors, the Lino Lakes, Minn., native was returning to Duluth for her sophomore season looking for more. Also back was Crowell's all-everything senior Sydney Brodt who was set to wear the "C" on her jersey for the third straight season. In addition to the out-of-this world leadership qualities she brings to the ice, she's a pretty good player too. Brodt notched 20 points during the 2018-19 campaign and was skating into this season with nearly 60 career points. Then there was Anna Klein. As a sophomore last season, Klein registered 23 points in 35 games and tied for second on the team in goals one year ago (12) to go along with 11 assists. All three former Minnesota high school standouts; all three with a special talent of making those around them better and a unique high-energy drive to bring their own game to new heights, heading into a new season. So why not cross the streams and turn the three-headed monster into one unstoppable force?
"Gabbie and Klein played together last year and had some good chemistry," explained Crowell. "Thinking about Syd's game in particular, the speed she brings and the speed that Klein brings they would be a nice duo on either side of Gabbie. Syd's been playing extremely well and has been getting invited to USA Hockey Senior National Team events, so her game is going in the right direction and it just made sense for her final season to have her up there. Klein is one of the most underrated players in our league with what she's been able to do through the course of her career and her development over time. Just her speed and getting pucks loose for Syd and Gabbie is amazing and it just kind of works. We planned on that line early and have stuck with them for the long haul; it was in August when we were settling on what we though would be a nice line. Those things always change but they have earned it time and time again. We go as they go."
You have to love it when a plan comes together.
The trio of Brodt, Hughes and Klein have not only been one of the main reasons why the Bulldogs are back in the WCHA mix, they have also turned into one of the most productive - and dangerous, top lines in the entire country. When you talk about the best of the best across college hockey, the names of Shirley-Roque-Watts or Zumwinkle-Heise-Potomak may roll of the tongue but Minnesota-Duluth's top talent has also creeped into the conversation. Consider that the group of Brodt, Hughes and Klein have been separated just twice this year in 24 games –both UMD losses. When they are intact the unit has combined for 31 goals and 45 assists.
"In the preseason we kind of talked about it a little bit. When they brought up Syd and since a I played with Kleiner a lot last year, I was absolutely pumped up for the upcoming season," remarked Hughes, a sophomore center for the Bulldogs; named last week's WCHA Player of the Week after scoring five points against St. Cloud State. "We just know where each one is on the ice and from the beginning we have communicated really well with one another. We know where each other is going to be, how we are all going to play and we know each other's tendencies. It's really easy to play with people you like to play with and players you really enjoy spending time with off the ice; that helps the chemistry we have."
"It's what we want. We want to be in that conversation as being one of the best teams in the conference and I do believe that our conference is the best in the country," continued Crowell. "To have a top line that is the conversation with (Abby) Roque, (Daryl) Watts and (Britta) Curl or whoever might be on that top line for Wisconsin and then you have (Grace) Zumwinkle, (Taylor) Heise and (Sarah) Potomak; they are all tremendous athletes and they are all getting it done on a consistent basis. I think our kids are right there and that's how we want to be viewed and what we are striving for this year. I think we have all of the pieces to make a deep run and that line dictates how we do."
Consistency. While Brodt and Klein have been consistent, Gabbie Hughes has taken that word and given it a whole new meaning. The sophomore sensation last year tallied 11 multi-point games and was held scoreless just nine times in 33 contests. This season, Hughes has been held without a point just twice. More impressive is the fact that she's already notched 14 multi-point games and is currently riding a streak where she has registered 13 points over her last seven. Now with 13 goals and 23 assists on the year, Hughes is third in the WCHA in assists and fourth in points. No one disputes that the Bulldogs' top-line center is the perfect yin to the rest of her line's yang.
"Consistency - that is a word that is thrown around so often in sports and what does that actually mean," remarked Crowell." It's the effort on a daily basis at practice you get which is required to establish yourself as a top line and to continue to earn that respect. I think that's one thing I love about them; they don't sit back and think well, we are on this line and we're not moving. They are always trying to get better, they are always communicating with each other and with their teammates with the goal of raising the bar and I think that's what we love about them. That's what allows them to be consistent. They bring it every day, their focus is always high and when it comes down to crunch time they are the ones who are able to execute. It's a really great line. They remind me of a line we had a couple years ago with Lara Stalder, Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Katie McGovern and that was a pretty successful campaign for us so hoping for the same thing this season down the stretch."
That was the 2016-17 season; a year when the Bulldogs won 25 games, finished third in the conference and sprinted to the NCAA quarterfinals during what was Brodt's freshman year. Now a senior, everything has come full circle for her. Just three years ago she was learning the tricks of the trade from the seasoned vets. The script has changed and Hughes for one is soaking up as much as she can as Brodt's teammate, linemate and this season, her roommate. A one-time student, Brodt has now become the teacher and everyone is listening.
"It's huge," stated Hughes. "We talked about this the other day; I look up to her a lot. She came into being a captain as a sophomore and she's been playing with the USA team since. She is an unbelievable leader, she's always the most consistent person at the rink and she's always working her butt off. You always know what you are going to get from her. Living with her, I get to see other sides of her as well away from hockey and we talk a lot about that. I am so grateful to live with her, to have her as my teammate and to have her as my linemate. I tell her all the time how thankful I am to know her and learn from her."
"I think Syd is an amazing person and leader," said Crowell. "It's hard not to want to play for her so to have her as a senior and being on her line, it's probably very inspiring for Gabbie. Syd does not take a day off. Literally, her practice performances which is something we put a big emphasis on; they are always high. She is competitive as heck and we love that because we want a high compete level here at Duluth. When you have your senior captain bringing that it forces everyone else to do the same or strive to do the same things. She may not always be perfect but her effort and passion for what she is doing and how badly she wants to win, I think it oozes out of Syd. It would be really hard for Gabbie not to feed off of that.
"You see that production on the scoresheet, you see the numbers but we feel it every day," continued Crowell. "That's honestly what has made our team so competitive and we hope that leads to success down the road. It's awesome. Having coached for a while now it's rare to see. It's been said that I am lucky to have some inspirational people on this team and that's exactly how I feel."
There definitely seems to be something in the air around the hallways of AMSOIL Arena. Currently on a six-game unbeaten streak the cylinders seem to be firing at just the right time. With an overall record of 12-8-4 (7-6-3 WCHA) heading into this weekend's series at Minnesota, the Bulldogs will need every ounce of momentum they can get to climb the conference ladder before the "second season" gets underway in just over a month. After facing off with the Gophers, UMD tangles with Ohio State, Minnesota State and Wisconsin which means they will see all three teams ahead of them in the conference standings before it's all said and done. Big-time players step up in big-time games. The line of Brodt, Hughes and Klein can't wait to go to work.
"I think we enjoy it. We want to play against the other team's best players," concluded Brodt. "It's going to be fun out there; it's going to be super competitive. We're not scared or intimidated. We feel we are up for the challenge and feel we can take on any line in the league. Our team has really come together. These last few years our team has grown up so much on and off the ice and I think this year the chemistry is off the charts. Being a senior, I can't think of a better group to go through this with."