Buffalo, NY — In September of 2018, Greg Carvel arranged for his family to visit his parents in Florida. It’s his family’s usual getaway for his kid’s school break. He bought plane tickets for April 13th, at 6:30 not realizing the National Championship was that day and that time. On the morning of April 12th, Carvel spent time and “the happiest $200 flight charge” to change his travel arrangements and clear the deck for a chance at the National Title. His family asked questions of how they’d get to Florida. Carvel responded, “We’re going to Buffalo and hopefully we’re staying.”
It seems fitting. UMass was not predicted to perform as they did this season. Carvel’s first year saw the Minutemen limp to five wins and 17 consecutive losses to close the season. The next year saw a 12 win improvement and a playoff series win, but the expectations across the college hockey landscape were not for Amherst to become the home of college hockey’s best story. But the Minutemen proceeded to shatter the program’s record for wins, claim their first Conference Regular Season Title, advance to the Hockey East Semi-Finals and the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, and play in the program’s first Frozen Four. This program, though offering talented and potent players, was not predicted to be playing on the last day of the college hockey season. Yet, here they are, ready for their final challenge of the season.
As far as the top individual talent, UMass can match anyone in the nation. They boast two First Team All-Americans in 2019 Hobey Baker Award Winner Cale Makar and Mitchell Chaffee, as well as Mario Ferraro, Marc Del Gaizo, and Ty Farmer on the back end, Jake Gaudet, Jacob Pritchard, and John Leonard up front. The Minutemen also boast two solid goaltenders in Filip Lindberg and Matt Murray. Lindberg has been amazing during his NCAA tournament run, only letting up three goals in three starts, all against Denver on Thursday. Coach Carvel has stressed to his goalies all year that allowing more than two goals a game is unacceptable. “I tell either kid in the net, You can’t give up more than two goals,” said Carvel. “I don’t care if you get 10 breakaway, 10 power plays, you can’t give up more than two goals. That’s their standard.”
UMass has already overcome some of college hockey’s elite programs. They topped BU, BC, Providence, Ohio State, Quinnipiac, New Hampshire, Harvard, and Notre Dame among others this season before surviving a scare against Denver on Thursday. Saturday night, the Minutemen will face their greatest challenge: the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Scott Sandelin has molded Duluth into the best program in the nation. UMD has claimed two of the last three NCHC Tournament crowns, reached the NCAA Tournament five years in a row, and played in three straight Frozen Fours, winning it all last year. The Bulldogs are the seventh program to play in three consecutive National Championship games, joining the 1951-1953 and 1955-1957 Michigan Wolverines, 1974-1976 Minnesota Golden Gophers and Michigan Tech Huskies, 1981-1983 Wisconsin Badgers, 1992-1994 Lake Superior State Lakers, and most recently, the 2006-2008 Boston College Eagles.
Sandelin joined a legendary list of coaches who have four or more National Championship Game appearances: Jerry York (8), Vic Heyliger (7), Murray Armstrong (7), Jack Parker (6), John MacInnes (6), Herb Brooks (4), Gino Gasparini (4), and Bob Johnson (4). He isn’t just one of the sport’s best coaches today. He’s carved out a spot in college hockey’s pantheon of greatest all-time coaches. His work to lift Duluth from a seven-win team in his debut season (2000-2001) to a Frozen Four squad five times over is a great testament to his temperament and ability to relate to modern hockey players.
Sandelin regularly deflects the spotlight to his players; rightly so despite his coaching prowess. The Bulldogs have seven NHL draft picks on their roster, two of whom are freshmen, and four are sophomores. Noah Cates and Cole Koeppel have stepped into a championship team and contributed in big ways as freshmen. The sophomore class of Dylan Samberg, Mikey Anderson, Scott Perunovich, Nick Swaney, Justin Richards, and Matt Anderson have shown that last year was just the beginning. The upperclassmen like Billy Exell, Parker Mackay, Peter Krieger, Nick Wolff, and Riley Tufte have experience and hardware to back it up. And don’t sleep on goalie Hunter Shepard, a Richter Award Finalist, who can shut down anyone on any given night. They showed all their strengths on Thursday in a thorough showing vs Providence. They won the National Championship in a rebuilding year last season and appear ready for another
Both teams will look to maintain puck possession and control the neutral zone. Sandelin has characterized his team as “more of a vertical north team.” While UMass is on their game when they play east to west. Both teams are capable of playing the opposite style, as evidenced by their being the last two teams standing from a field of 60.
The third-ranked offense of the Minutemen takes on the third-ranked defense of Duluth. Flipping the script has the thirteenth ranked Bulldogs offense going against the fifth-ranked Massachusetts defense. UMass has the power play edge over Duluth. The Minutemen led the nation with a 29.25 success rate on the man advantage. It will be important for the Bulldogs to stay out of the penalty box, despite having a solid penalty kill of 85.42 percent. While the same is true for the Minutemen, they also hold an advantage in the penalty kill. They come into the Final ranked fourth overall at 87.25 percent, with Bulldogs having the fifteenth best power play at 21.68.
These teams are pretty evenly matched. Both have elite blue lines. Both have capable and potent forward depth. Both have high caliber goaltending. Both have experienced coaching. Sandelin obviously has more collegiate experience, but Carvel is no stranger to championship hockey. He helped the 2003 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and 2007 Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals. The former accomplished that goal with a Daniel Alfredsson overtime tally on the ice where UMD and UMass will do battle on Saturday night.
UMass will be missing Bobby Trivigno, a small but gritty and important forward who’s figured into many of the Minutemen goals this postseason. The Setauket, NY, native was suspended by the NCAA for a hit to the head of Jake Durflinger with 3:10 remaining in regulation of the semi-final against Denver. The hit was not penalized in-game. Duluth has its entire cast.
One other factor to consider: the crowd. Duluth won the National Championship last season with a decidedly friendly crowd in St. Paul. Buffalo is closer to UMass than Duluth (a seven-hour drive or very short flight compared to a would-be fourteen-hour drive) and there is a rarely matched excitement surrounding this Minuteman opportunity for a first.
Both teams are playing with historic implications. Duluth is trying to become the first team since Denver in 2004 and 2005 to win back-to-back National Championships. UMass is trying to win its first. Cale Makar is aiming to be the sixth Hobey Baker Award winner to win the National Championship in his Hobey season. (Tony Hrkac-1987, Lane MacDonald-1989, Paul Kariya-1993, Jordan Leopold-2002, Will Butcher-2017)