Buffalo, NY. — The Denver Pioneers have been here numerous times, this is the 16th Frozen Four appearance for the Pioneers. This is their third in the last four years. They last won the National Championship just two years ago in 2017. Six players from that team are still playing. The Massachusetts Minutemen are here for the first time in school history. The contrast between the programs is striking. However, there’s a lot of similarities between the teams. Each has the same amount of seniors (3) and freshmen and sophomores (19). Neither was expected to be a game away from the Championship when the season started. But here they both are, in Buffalo, for the NCAA Frozen Four tournament vying for the right to take on defending National Champion Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday evening.
The Minutemen came out flying at the start of this one. Hobey Baker Award Finalist Cale Makar had a mini breakaway roughly five minutes in, but Denver’s Filip Larsson turned it away. The game was physical from the outset, with each team trying to establish themselves. At 6:24 Niko Hildendrand was assessed a Game Misconduct for Contact to the Head. The Pioneers staked their claim first when Colin Staub poked the puck past Filip Lindberg at 8:29. Lindberg made a flurry of saves during a scramble in his crease, but couldn’t corral the puck to stop play. Massachusetts was able to kill off the remaining time of the five minute man advantage.
At 10:47 Jarid Lukosevicius was whistled for Tripping giving the high-powered Minutemen power play the man advantage. Just seconds later, teammate Tyson McLellan was called for Holding giving UMass a five on three advantage. Bobby Trivigno tied the game 1-1 when he blasted a one-timer past Larsson from the right face-off dot at 11:41.
Things unraveled a bit for Denver as Ryan Barrow was penalized for Contact to the Head at 12:32. He too was assessed a Game Misconduct, giving the Minutemen a five minute power play as well as a five on three. It only took :32 for the Minutemen’s tic tac toe passing to lead to a Mitchell Chaffee goal from the slot. UMass 2-1 with more power play time. John Leonard only needed :18 to give Massachusetts a 3-1 lead when he fired a wrist shot past Larsson glove side at 13:22. The Minutemen would hit the post on three separate occasions after taking the 3-1 lead. The Pioneers held the shots on goal advantage 11-10 for the period and won the face-off battles 10-8 despite being outplayed.
The second period wasn’t as explosive as the first. Denver opened with pressure in the UMass zone. The pace of play was back and forth, with lots of physicality. Lindberg was seeing the puck well and getting squared up to face the shooter on most shots. At 11:30 Michael Davies was whistled for Slashing, but the Pioneers held the Minutemen off the board. Chaffee had a chance in all alone on Larsson but the goalie got enough of the puck with his shoulder to keep the puck out of the Denver net.
Chaffee would be given a 10 minute Game Misconduct for the game’s third Contact to the Head penalty at 16:12. Denver had a few chances on goal, but Lindberg was up to the task. The period would end with Denver still trailing by two, yet winning the shot battle 20-17 and the face-offs 20-13.
The third period seen UMass looking tired and taking penalties. At 3:42 Jake Gaudet was sent off for Cross-Checking. The Minutemen had a solid penalty kill by both units. Gaudet would have a chance that Larsson stopped after he was done serving his penalty. Boeing would be whistled for Hooking at 7:53. Lukosevicius had two really great chances on the Pioneer power play. A UMass defender got enough of his stick to affect his shot out front, then Lindberg made a glove stop on the other chance.
Denver pulled to within a goal when Cole Guttman threw a wrist shot on net from the top of the left circle that found its way through traffic and past Lindberg at 10:32. The Minutemen were caught in their zone at the end of a long shift. Each team was trading chances, Denver to tie and Massachusetts to pull away. Denver would achieve their aim, when Guttman got inside positioning on Jack Suter in front of Lindberg. Guttman poked in his second goal of the period to tie the game 3-3 at 16:14. The Pioneers outshot the Minutemen 15-4 in the third. Denver was thoroughly out-shooting UMass 35-21 after three periods of play. They were also commanding the face-off dot 32-19.
During the season Denver went 4-1-2 in overtime, while the Minutemen went 3-1. Overtime tonight carried much more with it. Sudden death to move on to the Finals. Denver continued to carry play early in the extra period. UMass had pressure of their own as they found their legs again. Each team had good opportunities to end it but both goalies had settled into their grooves. As the clock had just struck midnight Marc Del Gaizo ripped a shot past Larsson at 15:18 of overtime to send Massachusetts to their first NCAA Final.
A composed Greg Carvel spoke about his team after the game. “It’s our guys not trying to be head-hunters in any way,” said Carvel. “It’s our guys playing hard. Outside of them killing that penalty and scoring, I thought the game was outstanding. It was one of those games where the referees dictated a lot of the momentum.
This team, all year long they’ve impressed everybody. Tonight was just the next chapter of how resilient they are. I thought overtime, we were down, we lost two players, two forwards, playing three lines. We went deep into that overtime period. We played three lines for almost two periods, and the kids dug deep, once again, proved the resiliency, proved the culture that we have on our team is our strength and carries us, and it did again tonight.”
His counterpart behind the Denver bench David Carle wore his emotions on his face after the tough loss. He felt for his departing seniors class.
“Loved the resiliency, to stick with it,” said Carle. “I don’t think we got down on ourselves. We didn’t. Stuck with our game plan in the second and third. Really proud of our effort to be able to fight back, get it to overtime.
“Really proud of our team for everything they’ve done all year long. The adversity we faced, we faced it head on, got through it together. Very proud of the two young men (seniors Jarid Lukosevicius and Colin Staub)sitting next to me. I think they’re everything that is great about Denver hockey. They have left this place better than they found it. They’re Pioneers in the true definition of the word, everything we try to do here. I feel awful for them. But they’ve raised the standard and the bar here to a level of greatness. Just so very proud of both of them.”
The Minutemen will take on Minnesota-Duluth for the National Championship Saturday at 8:00 pm.