UMass hockey team ready for challenge of Minnesota-Duluth in Frozen Four championship game

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Six months, 40 games and 31 wins later, 60 minutes remain.

Having dispatched Denver in an overtime instant classic Thursday night, the Massachusetts hockey team is gearing up for the biggest game in the history of the program — and probably the school — as the Minutemen take on Minnesota-Duluth for the national championship on Saturday.

UMass barely escaped the Pioneers Thursday, and now face its biggest test of the season on the biggest stage possible; the reigning national champion Bulldogs, the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament.

The Minutemen need 76 minutes to take care of Denver, while Duluth had a fairly smooth route to the final past Providence in the semis. Fatigue may favor the Bulldogs, not that UMass is concerned.

"I don't feel that way," UMass coach Greg Carvel said. "Just glad we have a day off in between. We don't play till 8 [p.m.]. We should be able to recover and be fully energized to go. I don't think this style of game really would have an effect. We know Duluth is a heavy team. We've played Providence three times this year, very similar team, another heavy team.

"I don't think really whatever style of game last night, which apparently was very physical because everybody was getting thrown out, we'll be set for Duluth. We have a pretty good understanding of how they play. They're like Denver: very defensive-minded team, don't give you a lot. They're a little bigger team, play a little heavier style."

Duluth is arguably the best team the Minutemen have played all season, having rolled through the tournament to this point. The Bulldogs put together an impressive conference tournament, cruising past Omaha and Denver before topping No. 1 St. Cloud State to clinch an auto-bid into the tournament. From there, the Bulldogs had a brief stumble against Bowling Green and needed overtime in the tournament opener, before beating Quinnipiac and Providence to earn its third straight trip to the title game.

For Carvel, the task remains convincing his team that they belong on this stage, and that they can hang with a veteran team like Duluth.

"I'd say we just played Notre Dame, who went to three Frozen Fours in a row, something like that," Carvel said. "You just played Denver that won a national championship. Just another good team that we need to be at our best."

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"I think [the confidence] started at the beginning of the year," said sophomore John Leonard. "The first week we were together as a team, we kind of set that mindset that we wanted to be a national contending team this year. We had all the tools, everything we needed to get here."

The Minutemen were dealt a big blow on Friday morning when the NCAA handed down a one-game suspension for Bobby Trivigno, who wasn't penalized on Thursday after a hit to the head of Denver's Jake Durflinger. Mitchell Chaffee and Niko Hildenbrand, who were tossed from Thursday's contest, will not face any further disciplinary action and will dress on Saturday.

Senior Parker Mackay and sophomore Justin Richards lead a balanced Bulldog scoring attack with 31 points each, with four teammates notching at least 20 points this season. Junior Hunter Shepard has started every game for Duluth this season, with a 1.80 goals against average and a .922 save percentage between the pipes.

The storyline remains the same — it's a young, inexperienced UMass team on the national stage for the very first time, against a veteran, hardened Duluth team that's been here before.

"I don't think it's going to be too much of a disadvantage," said sophomore Cale Makar. "It's something we've been growing as a team throughout our entire season experience-wise. You look at TD Garden, another experience for us. We're at the point now where everybody understands what's at stake. Excited to get things started."

When the underdog Minutemen knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in October, some thought it was a fluke. When they swept Providence — ranked No. 4/3 at the time — in November, people started to believe. By the time they earned the No. 1 ranking in December, the underdog story was over, and UMass was the favorite at Hockey East tournament in Boston and at the regionals in Manchester.

Now, the Minutemen are back to their roots.

"We fully respect the opponent," Carvel said. "We fully respect they're the defending champion. They've been here every year.

"We understand we're the underdogs. It's all right. We're fine with that."

Puck drop at the KeyBank Center is set for 8:00 p.m.


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