Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass set to battle with Denver in NCAA tournament

Minutemen reach NCAA tournament for fourth time in five seasons
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

Greg Carvel didn’t want to know.

While his players and the rest of his staff anxiously followed the score of the Denver-Omaha NCHC championship game, (the outcome of which would determine whether or not the No. 13 Massachusetts hockey team qualified for the NCAA tournament) Carvel sat alone in his house, calmly watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Edmonton Oilers. He didn’t want to ruminate on the stress of scoreboard watching and speculating about whether there was a tomorrow for his squad.

When his director of hockey operations Steve Trachtenberg texted him saying “Let’s go!,” Carvel had a moment of relief; before Trachtenberg clarified that the game had not yet ended, Denver had just taken the lead.

After avoiding a few more texts from friends in the hockey community, he finally confirmed that the game had ended, Denver had won, and his team was back in the NCAA tournament.

When the dust officially settled on conference tournament weekend, UMass (20-13-3, 12-10-2 Hockey East) managed to grab the NCAA tournament’s final at-large bid by finishing 13th in the Pairwise rankings, less than 0.0004 percent ahead of Colorado College, scraping past it by the thinnest of hairs.

Although the Minutemen were the lowest ranked at-large bid, their role as hosts of the Springfield regional has afforded them the opportunity to play in their backyard in the opening round of the tournament. No. 3 Denver, (27-9-3, 15-7-2 NCHC) the highest seed in the region and UMass’ opponent for Thursday’s matchup, was forced to hop on a plane and fly across the country to Massachusetts, playing a team that it is heavily favored over.

The Minutemen on the other hand will take a quick drive down Interstate 91 to Springfield. There will more than likely be a large contingent of UMass supporters at the MassMutual Center on Thursday afternoon, ready to go wild for their Minutemen.

“It’s great having our fans, they travel really well as it is and for it to be in our backyard is amazing,” Senior Aaron Bohlinger said. “The support we get really helps drive this program forward and it makes it a lot more fun for us to do what we do.”

Although UMass will have the geographical home-ice advantage, Bohlinger and the rest of the Minutemen aren’t using that to dispel the fact that they have a massive challenge ahead of them in Denver.

“I think at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where we are, we’re just glad to be here; we’re not done yet though,” Bohlinger said. “We have a lot of drive, a lot of fire still left in our gut. We’ve just got to be ready to go and we’ll be sure that happens.”

Denver is one of the most formidable opponents that has been placed in the Minutemen’s path this season. After an up and down fall, the Pioneers went 16-3-3 since the start of January, including the four NCHC tournament games, where they ran the table, winning the conference title, defeating high quality opponents like Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Omaha.

The Pioneers are incredibly heavy up front, as they have nine players who broke the 30 point mark this season. For comparison, the Minutemen have one: Scott Morrow, who finished with 30 points on the nose.

There are very few weak spots in the Denver lineup. A deep forward group and an offensive back end will be a challenge for UMass’ defense and goaltending.

The Minutemen’s best chance of taking down Denver is in a tight, low-scoring game; the type of game where UMass consistently excels. The Minutemen need Michael Hrabal and the rest of the defensive unit to be on their A games, because getting into a shootout with the Pioneers is a sure recipe for disaster. Containing Denver’s high-end scorers coming through the neutral zone and taking advantage of the offensive opportunities they get is the path to victory for the Minutemen.

Bohlinger isn’t taking this opportunity to play for a championship lightly, and he’s using his role as captain to preach to his teammates just what this game and this tournament means for the program.

“I think it’s our job as leaders and coaches to instill in the younger guys that this isn’t something that is guaranteed, it’s hard to make the NCAA tournament,” Bohlinger said. “To do it more than once, you’re pretty fortunate, so you don’t want to let chances slip away when they’re in your hand. Just because you’re a freshman doesn’t mean you’re going to make it any of the next three years.”

The tournament starts for UMass on Thursday, with puck drop at the MassMutual Center slated for 2 p.m.

“There’s a lot of guys that came before any of us and worked really, really hard and did the right things to get this program where it is, so it’s our job to make sure we continue that on for the people that come after us,” Bohlinger said.

Matt Skillings can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter/X @matt_skillings.

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