PITTSBURGH — There’s a moment in every hockey season that every player and coach remembers well.
Maybe it’s a great weekend against a rival. A rally in a game you didn’t think you had any part winning. Maybe it’s as simple as a certain player scoring a goal.
But for teams that advance to a national title game, typically those moments come somewhere along the road in the postseason.
For both teams in Saturday’s championship game, the special moment of the postseason certainly came on Thursday in the national semifinals.
St. Cloud State relied on a picture-perfect redirect in the closing seconds of regulation to defeat Minnesota State. And for UMass, it was an overtime game-winner by Garrett Wait that sent the Minutemen to the title game for the second consecutive Frozen Four.
What was striking about both, however, was that it appeared that each took these signature moments in stride, understanding that the biggest victory is still, hopefully, to come.
“I probably celebrated more than anyone,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “That’s not right, but you can tell it’s pretty steely with the kids. Mission one accomplished.
“It’s important [to stay even keeled]. We talked about it this week with the players and some returning players from two years ago. They felt the same. We scored a goal in a game but we didn’t win anything. We didn’t win a championship. We earned the right to play again.”
Certainly the challenge in front of UMass, and likewise in front of St. Cloud State, is significant. Both teams look to win their first Division I men’s hockey national championship in school history. And when you begin measuring these two teams up against one another, you’ll find there are probably more similarities than differences.
Both teams like to play a heavy game. Not necessarily a smash-mouth style of hockey with massive open-ice checks that get the crowd to their feet. Rather, a game where you lean on your opponent enough to make the simple plays more complex. That’s also a style that typically can wear down opponents.
St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson admits his team likes that style of hockey but also acknowledges that UMass won’t make it easy.
“I think it’s going to be two teams with a very similar game plan,” said Larson. “You saw where [UMass] scored most of their goals [on Thursday]. That was within 2 feet of the net. You can tell that they’re driven to get there. They’re driven offensively to get to the net.
“You can also see how active their [defensemen] are on the forecheck. They’re a pressure team and a team that takes pucks to the dirty area really quick.”
Larson mentioning the defense may be a bit telling. The reality is that may be where these two teams separate themselves. While St. Cloud State will play a more passive neutral-zone game, hoping to capitalize on its opponent’s mistakes, UMass isn’t afraid to activate a defensive corps that has 26 goals among those in Thursday’s lineup.
That ability to skate in layers for UMass could be beneficial. And certainly the depth with which the Minutemen play — Carvel took pride after Thursday’s win in pointing out that his team was able to roll four lines through the third period and overtime while Minnesota Duluth shortened its bench — can be beneficial.
But when we look at depth at the forward position, you may have to give the nod to St. Cloud State. Of late, its fourth line has been dominant, particularly center Will Hammer who has scored two goals in the NCAA Tournament and, winning nearly 65 percent of his draws in the NCAA tournament, entered the Frozen Four as the top faceoff center.
Carvel knows that the depth St. Cloud has at forward combined with the opportunistic nature of the Huskies offense will be a challenge.
“They play kind of a trap a lot of the game in the neutral zone,” said Carvel. “That’s the one thing we need to prepare our players for. You don’t see that a lot in teams. Usually the teams are coming pretty aggressively at you.
“They’re playing a style that’s kind of sit back, let you make mistakes and counter. We haven’t seen that a lot so we’ll have to be ready for it or we’ll pay the price in transition offense.”
The major storyline of the week at this Frozen Four has been the absence of UMass players due to COVID protocols. Three of those players — including top goaltender Filip Lindberg and top goal scorer Carson Gicewicz — were announced after Thursday’s game to be traveling to Pittsburgh on Friday in hopes of rejoining their team.
Because of ongoing protocols, Carvel said that he still hasn’t seen the players, which also include third-string goaltender Henry Graham. To be eligible for Saturday’s championship game, they individually will have to be tested on that morning and return a negative result.
Good news, but there still remains some uncertainty for Carvel.
“I believe they are here,” said Carvel. “But until I see them, I won’t make any [lineup] decisions.”