UMass ready for Frozen Four, Denver on Thursday

Pioneers won the national championship in 2017

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UMass ready for Frozen Four, Denver on Thursday

UMass men's hockey played against Harvard in the 2019 NCAA Men's Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., at SNHU Arena on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Photo by Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

UMass men's hockey played against Harvard in the 2019 NCAA Men's Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., at SNHU Arena on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Photo by Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

UMass men's hockey played against Harvard in the 2019 NCAA Men's Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., at SNHU Arena on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Photo by Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

UMass men's hockey played against Harvard in the 2019 NCAA Men's Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., at SNHU Arena on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Photo by Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

By Liam Flaherty, Collegian Staff

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The stage is officially set.

In less than 24 hours, the Massachusetts hockey team will embark on its first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four when it takes the ice at KeyBank Center against Denver in the national semifinal.

After setting a program record for regular-season wins and overcoming a hefty stumble in the Hockey East semifinal at TD Garden on March 22, the Minutemen bulldozed their way through the NCAA regional weekend, spurred by a pair of decisive, 4-0 shutout victories over Harvard and Notre Dame.

“We’ve all said this, [but] we learned a lesson from Boston,” Mario Ferraro said. “We kind of turned the page on that. We know what’s at stake. It’s the semifinals. The Frozen Four. We’ve got to be dialed in. Come tomorrow night, it’s all business when we get to the rink. All the distractions count them out. We’ve got to go out there ready to play in the first five minutes [and] we’re going to go do that.”

It’s been 11 days since UMass (30-9-0) secured its spot in the championship weekend, but even with a large gap between competitive action, coach Greg Carvel also said the team will be ready to go.

“When your team is playing well, you want to get back out on the ice,” he said Wednesday. “You try to balance recharging the batteries but have them not lose that edge they had two weekends ago. We’re trying to read the room. We’re really good when we start games strong, come out in the first five minutes show we’re ready to play. That’s a real good sign. That’s what we’re hoping for tomorrow.”

To advance to the championship game, UMass must first go through an experienced Pioneers (24-11-5) team, which is making its 16th Frozen Four appearance. They won the national title in 2017.

“We’ve watched a lot of clips on them and they’re a very skilled, fast team,” Cale Makar said at UMass’ pregame press conference on Wednesday. “We’re just going to have to shut them down offensively. They have a lot of key pieces that we’ll have to be aware of at all times. It’s just a factor we need to be prepared for.”

Just like the Minutemen, Denver skates into Thursday’s showdown coming off a pair of shutouts. In the West Regional, the Pioneers beat Ohio State and American International 2-0 and 3-0, respectively.

While UMass holds the top power play among the four teams remaining in the tournament, the Pioneers’ conversion rate sits at just 15 percent. The Minutemen hold the edge on the penalty kill, as well, killing at a rate of 87.5 percent, while Denver has been successful 83.2 percent of the time.

“Both teams are obviously playing well defensively,” Jacob Pritchard said. “It’s going to come down to maybe the first goal, [who] is a little bit grittier, maybe it’s a rebound, maybe it’s a guy going to the net. We just got to play our game and we’ll be good. Special teams win you games. If we can get a goal or two, it’s going to be big. Win special team battles, you’ll also have a chance to win the game.”

“Obviously [Denver’s] a pretty good team,” he added. “At the end of the day it’s what we do, how we execute our systems, and how we play UMass hockey that’s going to determine our success.”

Puck drop is set for 8:30 pm on Thursday.

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