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UMass lacks experience, but packs talent, confidence

Sophomore center Jake Gaudet assisted on the overtime winner for UMass on Thursday in their 4-3 triumph over Denver, sending the Minutemen to the NCAA title game for the first time. (Clint Austin / The Rink Live)1 / 2
Finnish freshman goalie Filip Lindberg had 37 saves for UMass in the 4-3 overtime win over Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals on Thursday. (Clint Austin / The Rink Live)2 / 2

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If there wasn’t pure adrenaline keeping the Massachusetts Minutemen awake in the wee hours of Friday morning after their dramatic overtime win over Denver propelled them to the program’s first national title game appearance, there may have been some lingering concerns at work.

UMass, which had never been to the NCAA Frozen Four prior to this dream season in which they’ve won 30 games, captured their first Hockey East title and made it to the season’s final game. The Minutemen have a roster filled with talented kids who are realistic about the challenge they will face Saturday night, playing a Minnesota Duluth team that is making its third straight title game appearance.

The Minutemen got back to their hotel very late after Thursday’s overtime win, in which they were seemingly in complete control up by a pair of goals with less than 10 minutes to play. UMass suddenly found itself in overtime.

Defenseman Marc Del Gaizo ended the game with a slap shot, and even after 70 minutes of high-intensity hockey, rest didn’t come easily.

“Definitely pretty excited going to bed. It was a little hard to get to sleep,” said Minutemen left winger Jacob Pritchard, who had a pair of assists versus Denver. “At the end of the day, we came here to win two games, not just one. We have to get over it.”

If the Minutemen can win on Saturday, that would give UMass four victories in the NCAA tournament, which nearly matches their season total from 2016-17, when the team went 5-29-2 in coach Greg Carvel’s first season at the helm.

Last season, UMass won 17. On Thursday they won their 31st. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were in the Frozen Four and within a goal of forcing overtime versus Denver in the 2017 title game. It’s a turnaround that has even the UMass opponents nodding their heads with respect.

“I wish mine would’ve gone that fast, I know that” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, with a smile, on Friday, recounting the seven wins he coaxed out of UMD his first season running the program (2000-01). He had the Bulldogs in the Frozen Four by his fourth season. “We kind of had the same trajectory. We got to Boston in ‘04, which was kind of fun, it kind of built the same way... It’s a credit to them, their recruiting, getting players. Sometimes it doesn’t go that quickly.”

Makar leads

The one UMass player everyone mentions by name is sophomore defenseman Cale Makar, the Calgary, Alta., native who is widely expected to be in uniform for the Colorado Avalanche within the next 72 hours or so. Makar is a game-controlling blueliner in the mold of Hobey Baker Award winners like Jordan Leopold during his time at Minnesota, or what Bulldogs fans saw much of from Scott Perunovich during his freshman year.

Makar’s offensive workload got bigger quickly on Thursday, when two Minutemen were tossed from the Denver game due to head contact penalties. They go into the title game shorthanded already. UMass freshman right wing Bobby Trivigno, who has 13 goals, delivered an elbow to the head of a Pioneer Jake Durflinger and was suspended by the NCAA on Friday for a play that was not called late in regulation in the national semifinals.

The Bulldogs had the luxury of sitting and watching UMass play late Thursday, and admitted there are some elements of the opponent that are concerning. But having played on this stage recently and often, there’s a confidence in the Bulldogs roster that can’t be taught.

“I watched the game. They’ve got a good power play, obviously,” said Bulldogs defenseman Dylan Samberg. “They’re good offensively. But I think we’ve got good team defense. I think we can outplay them.”

UMass looked like a few different teams in their semifinal win on Thursday -- a strong, confident group that took a 3-1 lead, and an intimidated group that all of a sudden found itself in overtime versus a more experienced opponent. The Minutemen coach has downplayed his team’s lack of experience on this stage during their time in Buffalo, and said UMD’s veteran Frozen Four presence is just the next obstacle they will face.

“We just played Notre Dame, who went to three Frozen Fours in a row, something like that,” Carvel said on Friday. “You just played Denver that won a national championship. (UMD is) just another good team that we need to be at our best.”