BUFFALO, N.Y. — Resilient. That was the term both coaches used to describe their teams in Massachusetts’ thrilling 4-3 overtime win against Denver.
UMass freshman defenseman Marc Del Gaizo scored at 15:18 of the extra period to send the Minutemen to their first national championship game.
“It’s the coolest feeling ever,” Del Gaizo said. “Something you dream of as a kid.”
But before getting there, his team had to withstand a strong second period and a dominating third from the Pioneers.
Denver opened the scoring in the first period after Niko Hildenbrand was ejected with a five-minute major and a game misconduct for contact to the head on Denver’s Tyson McClellan.
Colin Staub got the only goal of the ensuing power play, lifting the puck over a sprawled Filip Lindberg after a chaotic battle for the puck in front of the net at 8:29.
The goal, at least for a while, seemed to tilt momentum toward the Pioneers, but UMass responded with three power-play goals of its own.
The first two each came with a five-on-three advantage for the Minutemen. Bobby Trevigno tipped a one-timer from Jacob Pritchard at the edge of the crease to tie the game at 11:16. UMass cycled the puck quickly and took the lead at 13:04 as Cale Makar fed Mitchell Chaffee, who wristed Makar’s drop pass through a screen past Denver goaltender Filip Larsson.
Still on the power play, John Leonard scored from the high slot just 18 seconds later over Larsson’s glove to give UMass a 3-1 lead at the end of the first period.
That score held up for the entire second, in a period that saw Denver again gain control.
But the Pioneers failed to take advantage of a five-minute major on Chaffee that carried into the third, and still trailed by two after the scoreless second.
The ejection of two right wings shortened the Minutemen bench to three lines, allowing the Pioneers to take advantage of a tiring opponent, outshooting UMass 15-4 in the final regulation period.
“I loved the resiliency, to stick with it,” said Denver coach David Carle. “I don’t think we got down on ourselves. We didn’t. We stuck with our game plan in the second and third. I’m really proud of our effort to be able to fight back and get it to overtime.”
“We played three lines for almost two periods, and the kids dug deep,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “Once again, [they] proved the resiliency, proved the culture that we have on our team is our strength and carries us. And it did again tonight.”
UMass withstood the Denver onslaught for a while, killing two minor penalties, until freshman Cole Guttman scored twice for Denver to tie the game.
Pioneers forward Jake Durflinger battled through a check behind the net to poke the puck loose into the corner. Tyler Ward backhanded it up the wall to Guttman, who peeled the pass off the boards, skated to the top of the left faceoff circle and wristed the puck just inside the left post at 10:32.
Guttman scored the equalizer with 3:46 left in regulation. Les Lancaster fired a shot from the right point that was tipped wide. McLellan scooped the puck out of the right corner to Guttman, who slid it under Lindberg from the edge of the crease.
UMass hung on against a strong Denver attack to force overtime.
“They’re a very skilled team,” Carvel said of Denver. “When you have defensemen with good skill and mobility — we practiced for eight days to deal with that. It’s hard to deal with. Once they got possession, if you give them a little space, they start moving, then it’s hard to recover.”
Carvel used the third intermission to refocus his team.
“I went into the locker room as soon as we came off the ice, the body language, hanging, ‘mopey-ness,'” Carvel explained. “I said, ‘Fellas, done. Change. One goal. Next goal wins.'”
While Carvel had to reset his team’s focus, Denver was confident in its ability to prevail.
“I loved how we pushed in the third,” said Carle. “It was an incredible effort by everybody that was going. We thought we had ’em.”
“We thought we were winning the game,” said Staub. “We battled back. We were resilient. There was no doubt in our minds going into the overtime that we were going to win that game.”
Both teams had their chances in OT.
Denver’s best opportunity came as Jarid Lukosevicius tried to force a backhand home on Lindberg about six minutes into the extra period. Lindberg also had to make a big save on a backhander by McLellan in the slot at 11:47.
UMass took a time out with just under six minutes left on the overtime clock. The breather seemed to energize the Minutemen.
“We had some guys caught on the ice,” said Del Gaizo. “The whole way in overtime, we were plugging along. As far as regrouping, I don’t think it was that much of a regroup. I think it was just guys tired. It was effective, so it was a good move.”
About 90 seconds later, Del Gaizo scored his dream goal.
Carvel praised his team’s ability to rebound after two periods in which the Minutemen were outplayed.
“I’ll give them credit. That’s as resilient as you can be,” said Carvel. “I thought Denver in the second and third was the better team. We were better in the first, then we were better in the overtime.”
In the national championship game Saturday night, UMass faces Minnesota Duluth, a team Carvel admitted he doesn’t know well.
But Carvel learned something about his team Thursday night.
“Tonight was just the next chapter of how resilient they are,” he said.