UMass hockey breathing confidence leading up to Saturday’s final

Minutemen facing off against Minnesota-Duluth at 8 p.m.

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UMass hockey breathing confidence leading up to Saturday’s final

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

By Liam Flaherty, Collegian Staff

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BUFFALO N.Y. — It’s been a season of incredible firsts for the Minutemen.

Their first No. 1 ranking, their first Hockey East regular-season title, their first Frozen Four.

And now, this.

For the first time ever, the Massachusetts hockey team is set to appear in the national championship game Saturday night. On the other side of the sheet: defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth.

This marks the Bulldogs’ (28-11-2) third-straight appearance in the national final. In 2017, they fell to Denver, who UMass (31-9) beat in the national semifinal Thursday night, before downing Notre Dame last April for their second championship in history. They were first crowned champions in 2011.

Duluth holds the upper hand in experience ahead of the final, but the Minutemen don’t seem to mind.

“I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a disadvantage,” Cale Makar said at UMass’ press conference on Friday. “It’s something we’ve been growing as a team throughout our entire season experience-wise. We’re at the point now where everybody understands what’s at stake. Excited to get things started.”

When asked how much experience will play a role, coach Greg Carvel’s agreed with his star defenseman.

“I’d say we just played Notre Dame, who went to three Frozen Fours in a row,” he said. “You just played Denver that won a national championship. Just another good team that we need to be at our best [against].”

The Bulldogs’ postseason run has been a dominant one. In the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, they swept Omaha, before shutting out Denver and overpowering the most dominant regular-season squad in college hockey, St. Cloud State, to secure their fifth conference championship in history.

As the top seed in the West Regional, and the second-overall in the tournament, Duluth got a scare from Bowling Green, but overcame the adversity with a 3-2 overtime win off the stick of Parker Mackay. The next night, the Bulldogs beat Quinnipiac to meet Providence in the national semifinal.

Knotted 1-1 entering the final frame, they scored three straight goals in the final 9:53.

“We know Duluth is a heavy team,” Carvel said. “We’ve played Providence three times this year, very similar team, another heavy team. We’ll be set. 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, play a little heavier style, [but] we fully respect the opponent. We fully respect they’re the defending champion.”

(Jon Asgeirsson/Daily Collegian)

The Minutemen will be without Bobby Trivigno in their most-important game of the season, and program history for that matter. He was suspended for leading with an elbow in the third period.

Captain Niko Hildenbrand and forward Mitchell Chaffee were tossed from the semifinal showdown but both of them will be back for the title game. Overall, three major penalties were dished out in the affair.

“The two kids that got kicked out, when those hits happened, I wasn’t thinking they’re going to be kicked out,” Carvel said. “You’ve seen our team play. We check. It’s hockey. You run into people.

“I guess they unfortunately hit heads first. I honestly haven’t really gone back to dissect them. But that’s our identity. You play hard. I don’t think Duluth is any different. There’s always the line that you can’t hit the guy in the head. I don’t consider ourselves a team that looks for that. But I consider ourselves a team that wants to be a heavy team, we want to be hard, we want the physical part of the game to be a factor that goes in our favor. We won’t change anything except ask the guys to be a little more disciplined.”

The firsts have been coming all season long for the Minutemen, and only one remains on their plate.

“We understand we’re the underdogs,” Carvel said. “It’s all right. We’re fine with that.”

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

Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.