This is the first of four team previews for the teams that have reached the Frozen Four this week in Pittsburgh.
Season record: 18-5-4 (13-5-4 Hockey East)
How they got to Pittsburgh: Defeated Lake Superior State 5-1, defeated Bemidji State 4-0 in East Regional
Top players: Forwards Bobby Trivigno (10-21-31), Garrett Wait (8-8-16) and Carson Gicewicz (17-7-24) – unavailable due to COVID protocols; and defensemen Zac Jones (8-15-23) and Matt Kessel (9-12-21)
Top goalie: Filip Lindberg (9-1-4, 1.33 GAA, .946 SV%) – unavailable due to COVID protocols; Matt Murray (9-4-0, 2.01 GAA, .913 SV%)
Why they will win the national championship: This is as complete a team as UMass has ever had.
Sure, they reached a Frozen Four two years ago with brand name players like Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro, but this team might be a deeper all-around club. Their defense has become one of the best in the nation allowing just 1.70 goals per game (second behind Minnesota State). And unlike many other teams, they can match the intensity and heavy play of the other three teams in Pittsburgh.
Why they will not win the national championship: The UMass offense has been cranking of late, particularly in the regional. But should they meet a defense that slows them down like UMass Lowell did in the Hockey East title game, then the outcome can become a bounce of the puck. This isn’t a team that will get blown out of a building (only bad loss this season was a 6-3 defeat versus Boston College early in the season), but if the game stays close, you never know. Edit: Add in the loss of both Gicewicz and Lindberg due to COVID protocols, and this team becomes more vulnerable.
Two years ago, when UMass reached the Frozen Four, and subsequently the national title game, for the first time in program history, coach Greg Carvel admits his team wasn’t fully prepared for the moment.
“[Two years ago], we played in overtime until after midnight [in the semifinals] against Denver,” Carvel said. “The next day, the itinerary had us up and going. We were a tired team going into that championship game.”
Carvel says that, not taking anything in this year’s semifinals for granted, if they are able to move on he’s going to make recovery on the off day a priority. That’s just part of what he feels is the positive experience that he took from his team’s loss to Minnesota Duluth in 2019.
“I think we’re all ready to go in there with some experience,” Carvel said. “The last time it was all eyes wide open, go where we were told. Now we have the experience of how it goes, how it is run and important it is that your players get the proper rest and preparation.
“The experience, we think will be very helpful this time.”
The Minutemen can prove that they’ve learned from the past right away as Thursday’s second semifinal pits UMass against the same team that ended their historic run two years ago, Minnesota Duluth.
“Last time we played Duluth, it wasn’t close,” Carvel said. “They shut the door on us; they beat us 3-0. I expect we’ll have an equally tough time.”
This team is considerably different from 2019. First off, they are missing maybe the biggest component, Hobey Baker winner Cale Makar as well as another standout blueliner, Mario Ferraro. But the defensive position is hardly empty and, if anything, this club is most stingy.
The backend is led by two talented goaltenders, though Filip Lindberg has taken the reins of the club for much of the last two months. After missing games with injuries early, allowing Matt Murray to carry the water between the pipes, Lindberg played so well upon returning, Carvel couldn’t keep him out of net. (Edit: Lindberg will not play in the Frozen Four due to COVID protocols. Murray will be the starting goaltender).
“This summer, [Filip] came to me and said, ‘I need to play more,’” Carvel recalled. “I got angry and said, ‘Be better.’ I said that to both of the goaltenders. Matt made it easy early in the year; he won seven games in a row. The Filip came back, and he’s gone 12 games without a loss.
“I told him, ‘You want to play every game, go out and get a .940 save percentage be under two goals a game. That’s what he did, so now he plays every game.”
Carvel recognizes that everything isn’t built around goaltending. The backend for UMass has become elite at limiting chances. When the opportunities present, both the blueliners and a talent crop of forwards can put the puck in the net.
“You don’t win if you’re not a good defensive hockey team,” said Carvel. “It’s impressive of the defensemen we have. When you have Zac Jones and Marc Del Gaizo and Aaron Bollinger, kids who are really good offensive defensemen who are committed to playing strong defense. Then you have Matt Kessel and Colin Fields who are big, strong, hard defensemen. But they’re all good two-way players.
“We’re not a super skilled team. The kids are just committed to playing what I think is the right way. Limiting teams, frustrating teams and being opportunistic. We don’t sit back. We play the game hard going forward but hard coming back. We’ve done a good job down the stretch here refining it.”