UMass’ senior class completes the program’s turnaround, wins national championship

“Four years, finishing off on a high note. It’s amazing.”

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Noah Bortle, Sports Editor

PITTSBURGH—When the Massachusetts hockey team welcomed its freshmen class on to campus prior to the 2017-18 season, the buzz around the program was palpable.

Yes, the team had just gone 5-29-2 the season before, but UMass was bringing in its most highly touted recruiting class to Amherst. The freshmen were headlined by first-round draft pick Cale Makar but featured future NHLers Mario Ferraro and John Leonard as well—not to mention Mitchell Chaffee who went on to sign with the Minnesota Wild organization.

That class of professional talent turned the Minutemen around almost immediately. In their first season on campus, they propelled UMass to 17 wins and a Hockey East Playoff victory over Vermont. A year later, it was a trip to the National Championship game and a Hobey Baker award for Makar.

Now, two years later, the players that headlined that class have moved on—proving too talented and making the leap to the professional ranks. The remnants of that class, however, have been the driving force behind the 2020-21 iteration of UMass hockey.

“To think that Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro, John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffee were supposed to be on this team,” head coach Greg Carvel said after the game, “and I understand every school loses good players to the NHL—but Jared [DeMichiel] and Ben [Barr] brought in great players but great, good quality people.”

Oliver Chau, Jake Gaudet, Philip Lagunov, George Mika and Matt Murray stood as the only players to stay all four years from that lauded freshmen class. They weren’t the players atop most people’s list of who would turn around the Minutemen, but they did just that.

When the final horn sounded on the 2020-21 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey season, it was the likes of Chau, Gaudet, Lagunov, Mika and Murray wrapped in each other’s arms, gloves and sticks strewn across the ice. The scoreboard above them read, UMass: 5, St. Cloud State: 0.

“You won’t look at our scoresheet and one or two guys are going to be a mile ahead of everyone else,” Carvel said before the season. “We’re going to have to really be a score by committee…I like the depth of this team.”

It was a perfect reflection of the senior class. Not a lot of names that jump off the sheet, but players who were integral in elevating UMass to the pinnacle of college hockey.

“We were here two years ago and didn’t have the result we wanted,” Gaudet said after the game. “When that happens, you’re not sure you’ll get back to this level. But to be here, to seal the deal, especially senior year, so proud of the guys.”

Chau was the only senior to even rank within the top eight of points for the Minutemen—standing as the only consistent offensive threat between the four skaters. Despite that, the group came up huge time and time again to eventually hoist the trophy.

Jake Gaudet scored the lone goal in UMass’ Hockey East Championship over UMass Lowell and added another two goals in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against Lake Superior State.

Matt Murray played one of the most heroic games in the Minutemen’s history, standing in for Filip Lindberg in the Frozen Four and making 36 saves to keep UMass’ title hopes alive.

And then it was Philip Lagunov’s turn to step up when the lights were brightest. In the national championship Saturday night, Lagunov—a player with just three goals to his name on the season—scored the prettiest goal of the Minutemen’s campaign.

Shorthanded in the second period, UMass gained control of the puck. Lagunov carried the puck into the offensive zone along the right boards. When St. Cloud State defenseman Nick Perbix stepped up, Lagunov slipped the puck past him on the right, skating around him on the left, to leave him in the dust. Then, with just a goaltender to beat, he brought to puck to his backhand and deposited it underneath the Huskies David Hrenak’s glove and in to give the Minutemen a 3-0 lead.

Carvel is the first to say his 2020-21 UMass team isn’t the most talented team in the country. In much the same way, the seniors on the roster weren’t the most talented players from their recruiting class when brought to the Minutemen. The team though—like the senior class that lead them—proved greater than the sum of their parts. The result was something no team from Amherst had done before—not even ones with the likes of Makar and Ferraro; it was the first national championship in the history of UMass hockey.

“I wanted them to come in tight and look each other in the eyes and try to remember the moment,” Carvel said of the end of the game, “because honestly it will be the best moment of their life. And I just wanted them to hear that from me and hear my gratitude for all they’ve done.”

“Four years,” Lagunov said, “finishing off on a high note. It’s amazing.”

Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected]. He can be followed on Twitter @noah_bortle.