BUFFALO, N.Y. — On the eve of their first Frozen Four game, the Massachusetts Minutemen opened their practice on the KeyBank Center ice looking like the big stage rookies they are. Ten minutes in, UMass coach Greg Carvel had to blow his whistle and summon his players.
“Hey, let’s take a breath,” he told them. “We’ve been through this. It’s the same practice we do every day before a game.”
It worked. His players settled down and the practice shifted to the normal speed and crispness the team usually displays.
“I’m glad we got to skate today,” Carvel said after the practice. “Get that stuff out of the system and be ready to go.”
How well the Minutemen fare under the bright lights of the big stage is a question they presumably had answered in a thundering affirmative with their take-no-prisoners, dominating 4-0 wins over Harvard and Notre Dame in the Northeast Regional.
But isn’t the Frozen Four an even bigger stage, one on which its Thursday opponent, Denver, is exceptionally comfortable? Denver, after all, has appeared in 12 straight NCAA tournaments, and three of the last four Frozen Fours. The Pioneers own eight national championships, including one just two years ago.
What if those opening 10 minutes of UMass’ practice were indicative of how the Minutemen might play in the opening 10 minutes of their game with Denver? What if, as a result, they find themselves trailing in the biggest game of their lives?
Might their dominance in the Northeast Regional, never trailing and controlling play pretty much from the drop of the puck — never facing adversity — work against them, especially if they fall behind?
“When we start real well, we usually play a good, solid 60 minutes,” Carvel said. “When we don’t start well, we’ve still proven we can come back in games.
“We were down 3-0 in the first playoff game of the year. We were down to [New Hampshire] 3-0 halfway through the game and came back.
“When you’ve played 40 games, you’ve had adversity, a lot of adversity, whether it’s in a game or in practice or an off-ice issue, whatever it is.
“This time of the year, ideally we score the first goal because the two teams [are] playing well defensively. But if we don’t score the first goal, it’s not like our bench is going to sag and think, thanks for coming, game’s over. We’ll keep grinding.”
Arguably, the superior UMass offense, third best in the nation, gives it the firepower to either take the lead and never look back, as the Minutemen did in the regional and for much of the season, or come back from a poor start like they did against UNH.
And in their power play, they hold a major advantage over the Pioneers. The UMass man advantage clocks in at second in the country (28.17%) to Denver’s abysmal 48th (15%).
Having arguably the best player in college hockey, Cale Makar, to quarterback the man advantage unit sure doesn’t hurt. (And is it really even an argument that Makar is the best? At least to those who’ve watched him play?)
But the power play isn’t just Makar and four orange pylons. It converts at almost twice Denver’s rate for a reason. And it isn’t just the talent of all five skaters.
“It’s having five players who are very good at their roles on the power play, from Marc Del Gaizo’s ability on the blue line to Jacob Pritchard on the goal line to Mitchell Chaffee in the slot,” Carvel said. “All five guys [have] scored goals on the power play. We have a lot of different threats.
“I won’t take credit for the power play. I run it, but these kids, they execute, see the game. They’re all very good offensive players. They just go out there and they play.
“I give them a little bit of structure, a little bit of guidance. They’re just good players. They just create the offense mostly themselves.”
With a team defense that appears to be Denver’s equal, and advantages in all other categories except experience, it’s small wonder that Carvel is repeating the same mantra he spoke before the Northeast Regional.
“The disadvantage of our team is that we’ve not been here,” Carvel said. “But I’ll take this team without experience over anything else. The quality of the kids that we have, the character, the skill level, their unity, everything, they’re a good group.
“I’m excited to go into this with them. We don’t have that experience, but that’s all right. We have a lot of other things I’m excited about.”