University of Massachusetts hockey coach Greg Carvel said the last time his Minutemen and Minnesota Duluth met, the Bulldogs were the bigger team and played a heavier game. That, Carvel said, is part of why UMass did not come away with an NCAA Division I championship two years ago.
"Two years ago, that was our vision," Carvel said, when asked about modeling his program in a similar fashion to Minnesota Duluth. "We were just two years into our plan, I guess. That team, as you know, was mostly freshmen and sophomores who were young and inexperienced. When we stepped into that game, you felt the experience of Duluth, you felt their size, you felt how stifling they were defensively. We've had two years to continue to mold ourselves like that.
"We feel like we're further down the road."
That road has led to Pittsburgh for the 2021 Frozen Four. UMass (18-5-4) will play the Bulldogs (15-10-2) in one of two Frozen Four semifinals at PPG Paints Arena. The face-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
The first game of Thursday's doubleheader features St. Cloud State (19-10) and Minnesota State (22-4-1). That game will be seen at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.
The semifinal winners will play Saturday night at 7, and that game will be seen on ESPN.
UMass is carrying several flags into the semifinal. The Minutemen are the only team from east of the Mississippi River in the Frozen Four, and are the only non-Minnesota team. Minnesota Duluth is, of course, from Duluth. St. Cloud State is from St. Cloud, and Minnesota State is from Mankato.
"I think so," UMass left wing Bobby Trivigno said, when he was asked during Wednesday's video conference with reporters if he and his teammates felt like they were carrying the flag for eastern hockey.
"Being the only team from the east, we definitely take pride in that," he said. "We definitely take pride in being the only team from Hockey East. I think we can definitely compete with these teams, and we do definitely take a lot of pride in being from the East Coast."
"It's a big duty to be the one team from the East Coast here at the Frozen Four," UMass goalie Matt Murray added. "It shows a lot about our team being the one team that came out of all the great competition and all the teams out on the East Coast."
The Minutemen will be without three key players for the semifinal in goalie Filip Lindberg, first-line right wing Carson Gicewicz and fourth line wing Jerry Harding. Those three, along with third-string goalie Henry Graham, were left in Amherst due to one player testing positive for COVID-19 and three for contact tracing.
"We're very excited to be back here. I feel this team absolutely deserves to be here," Carvel said. "It'll be fun to play Duluth again and see where we're at two years later. They're still the standard bearer."
Two years ago, UMass won the Manchester Regional by shutting out Harvard and Notre Dame by identical 4-0 scores. The Minutemen scored a thrilling 4-3 win over Denver in overtime, before losing to Duluth in the title game in Buffalo.
While UMass went through New Hampshire to get to the 2019 Frozen Four, Minnesota Duluth was sent to the Allentown (Pa.) Regional. The Bulldogs beat Bowling Green 2-1 in overtime and Quinnipiac 3-1, earning their way to Buffalo. There, Duluth beat Providence 4-1 before taking on UMass.
If Duluth beats UMass, the Bulldogs will be the first team to ever play in four straight championship games. Boston College, North Dakota and three other teams have played in three straight. BC was the last team to play in three straight title games, dating from 2006-08.
"We're just lucky to have another opportunity to play," Carvel said. "We were a little concerned. We had one positive COVID test and were concerned that if we had another, we wouldn't even be able to play here Thursday. We kept it to the single test, and we've got a great opportunity."
Minnesota Duluth's Kobe Roth was asked about the issue facing UMass, and he admitted to being a little surprised by it.
"It's the same thing that happened to us in Fargo a couple of weekends ago against Michigan," he said. "Actually, kind of a little shocked at first, but we're just focusing on ourselves right now."
The Bulldogs got to Pittsburgh by winning the Fargo (N.D.) Regional. Duluth got a pass into the championship game after Michigan had to withdraw because of COVID issues. Then in the championship game, the Bulldogs needed five overtimes to eliminate top-seeded North Dakota 3-2, to punch their ticket to the Steel City.
Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin did not tip his hand on Wednesday whether sophomore Ryan Fanti or freshman Zack Stejskal will start for the Bulldogs. Stejskal made 57 saves against North Dakota before leaving the ice in the fourth overtime with cramps. Fanti finished up and got the victory.
Luke Mylymok got the game winner 2 minutes, 13 seconds into the fifth OT.
The Minutemen will be the somewhat smaller team on the PPG Paints ice. The Bulldogs throw two pretty big top lines at opponents. The No. 1 line features 6-foot-2, 190-pound center Noah Cates with 6-1, 195 pounder Cole Koepke on the left wing and 5-11, 175-pound Nick Swaney on the right. Swaney is the leading scorer with 13 goals and 14 assists, while Koepke is the top goal scorer with 14. Jackson Cates, Noah's brother, is almost a carbon copy at 6-foot, 190. Right wing Koby Bender is 6-foot, 190, while left wing Roth is a more diminutive 5-8.
Duluth coach Scott Sandelin was asked during his press availability if, when he watches UMass on tape, he is kind of looking in a mirror, since the Minutemen try to play a heavy game with good goaltending and a mobile defense.
"Very much so," he said. "The way they play, you kind of put it to a 'T,' right. They can play fast. They can play heavy. They have what I call a ground game offensively. They're team is built a lot like our teams of the past. Their strength in goaltending and on 'D,' and a really balanced forward attack with some really dangerous players. They've got really good depth. I like how they play."
It's going to be the next man up for UMass, from Murray to however Carvel adjusts his lines with two of the four right wings who played against Bemidji State out. One of those wings, St. Lawrence transfer Gicewicz, had scored 17 goals for UMass. Four of those goals came in the Bridgeport Regional, and three of them came via a natural hat trick in the 4-0 win over Bemidji.
"This year has been filled with unpredictability, as seen across every college hockey team," Trivigno said. "This was one of these moments where we weren't sure what was going to happen. I know we're really grateful that we got the opportunity to come here, and we're not going to squander it.
"I know the boys back home will be rooting for us, and we're going to get the job done for them."