They had to lose it to know how to win it.
The UMass men’s hockey team made it to the NCAA title game two years ago but didn’t understand then what it would take to get its hands on the trophy. The Minutemen were wide-eyed in Buffalo, doing whatever they were told to do on the off day while defending champions Minnesota-Duluth were chilling in their hotel rooms. “We weren’t ready for what came at us,” said coach Greg Carvel, whose squad was stifled 3-0 by a more experienced rival.
This time his rested and resolute varsity was prepared for everything including a plague of frogs. After having dethroned UMD in overtime on Thursday there was no chance that the Minutemen were going to let immortality slip through their gloved fingers in Pittsburgh.
“Where this program was five years ago and now we’re national champions,” Carvel said Saturday night, after the Minutemen had throttled St. Cloud State 5-0 at PPG Paints Arena to win the first top-division national title in any UMass men’s sport after suffering through the worst season (5-29-2) in program history in 2017. “I’m so proud of them and so thankful.”
It was the most lopsided final since Boston College whitewashed Wisconsin by the same score in 2010 and it was all but decided when Philip Lagunov cashed a lovely shorthanded goal five minutes into the middle period to put his side up 3-0.
“That was the turning point in the game,” mused St. Cloud coach Brett Larson, whose squad was down by two goals after the first period and never recovered. UMass never let the Huskies off the leash, never gave them as much as a sniff at a comeback. “The whole team played unreal,” said goalie Filip Lindberg, whose fourth career tournament shutout was an NCAA record.
It undoubtedly helped that Lindberg and top gun Carson Gicewicz, who missed the semis because of COVID protocols, were back in uniform. But the most important thing was that the Minutemen knew that they had to quickly turn the page after exacting sweet payback from Duluth. “We scored a goal,” Carvel had said. “We won a game, but we didn’t win anything. We didn’t win a championship.”
UMass won this one with its entire bench, just as it did against UMD when Anthony Del Gaizo, whose only previous tally this season was into an empty net, popped in the tying goal in the third period. This time it was defenseman Aaron Bohlinger, who hadn’t scored all year, finishing off a two-on-zero break with fellow freshman Ryan Sullivan less than eight minutes in.
When Reed Lebster, who’d scored only once this season, banged in another with just over a minute left in the first period, the Huskies could feel the ice giving way beneath them. This was their first appearance in the championship game and they seemed blinded by the light. The Minutemen had tunnel vision. Having fallen short once they knew exactly what they needed to do to prevail. “They used it as fuel,” said Larson. “You could see UMass had been through it.”
The Minutemen knew that three goals might not be enough, not with 35 minutes still on the clock. So they kept coming and coming. Matt Kessel got them another one on the power play with half a dozen minutes left in the middle period and Bobby Trivigno added the fifth early in the third. The way that Lindberg (25 saves) was manning the cage, calmly deflecting pucks out of harm’s way, one goal would have been sufficient. “It takes a lot to shut out a team,” said Trivigno. “I think we earned it.”
St. Cloud certainly had a winning pedigree. The Huskies had mastered Duluth in five of their seven meetings and had beaten Boston University by four goals and BC by three in the Albany regionals. But the Minutemen, who haven’t lost in nearly two months, were on a mission.
They’d waited an extra year for another chance to play for a ring. Who could say when they’d get another? With three minutes remaining and victory assured Carvel gathered his players around the dasher.
“Soak it in,” he told them. “I’m 50 years old. This is as good as it gets.”