PITTSBURGH — The COVID-19 pandemic denied the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey program a shot at a historic three-peat as national champions last spring by forcing the cancelation of the 2020 NCAA tournament.
But the Bulldogs were granted a second chance this season. They navigated a complicated set of pandemic protocols, earned an at-large bid to their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament and prevailed in five overtimes last month against top-ranked North Dakota in the state of North Dakota to reach an fourth-consecutive Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for UMD, its story will not end with another national championship, or even an appearance in the national championship game. While the Bulldogs were able to stave off the coronavirus, they could not hold back Massachusetts, which scored 14:30 into overtime Thursday to beat the Bulldogs 3-2 in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena.
“To get back here, it's not an easy thing to do,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “And to be able to do it four years in a row, it still leaves a bitter taste losing the game, but certainly proud of our group.”
UMD led 2-1 after two periods thanks to goals by junior wings Tanner Laderoute and Cole Koepke, and a healthy 26-11 shots on goal advantage.
UMass junior forward Anthony Del Gazio, with just his second goal of the season, tied the game 8:25 into the third period to force overtime, and from there the Minutemen overwhelmed the Bulldogs by a 13-2 margin in shots on goal.
It was the 13th puck UMass put on net, one that was quickly slid across the crease by Bobby Trivigno and onto the stick of fellow junior forward Garrett Wait — a former Minnesota Golden Gopher of all people — that found its way through.
“Duluth is the best team we've played this year. They play a really heavy style that we're not used to playing against,” said coach Greg Carvel, whose UMass team will play St. Cloud State for the national championship on Saturday. “For two periods we struggled with it. I don't know if frustration is the right word, but what we usually do just wasn't working. So after the second period, I really urged the players to realize that it's going to take more, and I thought the kids did a great job in the third period.”
Thumbs up to a historic run by UMD
It wasn’t just the Bulldogs' shot at a three-peat that came to an end Thursday, but a number of historic runs by the program that will be remembered for years and years to come.
Already one of just five teams to have made three consecutive NCAA title games along with Boston College (2006-08), Minnesota (1974-76) and Michigan, twice (1951-53 and 55-57), the Bulldogs were trying to be the first school to appear in four straight national championship games.
UMD had a nine-game NCAA tournament winning streak that stretched back to 2018 snapped. Thursday's loss was only the program's second in 14 NCAA tournament games dating back to 2017.
The Bulldogs had won nine consecutive NCAA tournament overtime games prior to Thursday. The last time UMD lost in OT in the NCAA tournament was 6-5 to RPI in the 1985 Frozen Four semifinals.
“It's been awesome,” said UMD senior wing Nick Swaney, who has been to three Frozen Fours in four seasons, winning two NCAA titles. “It's hard to describe everything that we've gone through these four years. … Getting back here every single year, that's just something you don't see a lot, and a testament to the culture we have here at Duluth. I'm fortunate to be part of so many great teams and so many great groups of guys.”
Some streaks still stand.
UMD will be seeking a seventh-consecutive NCAA tournament berth in 2021-22. Their current run of six tournaments is the longest active streak in NCAA men's hockey.
The Bulldogs will also get a chance to keep their Frozen Four streak alive. One of 11 teams to ever reach four straight Frozen Fours, they can join Colorado College (1948-1952) and Boston University (1974-1978) as the only schools to make five straight Frozen Fours.
“It's all about the culture we created,” said Laderoute, who has been to two Frozen Fours and won one national championship in three seasons at UMD. “We're good hockey players, but even more than that, we have good people. We have good character. That's what we create. That's why we keep coming back.
“We faced so much adversity, every team has, but it's supposed to be this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it seems that we keep coming. So it's a pleasure to be here. I couldn't be more lucky to do it with all these guys.”
The longest consecutive Frozen Four streak belongs to Michigan, who made 10 in a row in college hockey’s early days from 1948-1957. That’s also the only time any school has ever three-peated as national champions, with Michigan winning in 1951, 1952 and 1953.
Sandelin, who hasn’t spoken to his team following a season-ending postseason defeat since the loss to Denver in the 2017 NCAA championship game in Chicago, said there wasn’t much he could say to the team Thursday night, just that he’s really proud of the team for the opportunity they gave themselves during a tough year.
“I'm not sure going into the year a lot of people gave us a chance to get back, to have a chance to win another championship,” Sandelin said. “This group fought some of those odds and grew together during the year.
"A lot of those guys, they don't know this feeling. Sometimes the highs are unbelievable and the lows are really low, but you can learn from everything. So hopefully we learn from this and use it as motivation to get back here next year.”
Thumbs down to overtime
So how did the Minutemen, who were dominated by the Bulldogs two years ago in the national championship game in Buffalo and again during the opening two periods of Thursday's national semifinal, finally get the best of UMD?
Carvel had the answer to that.
“When it got to overtime and as we found more confidence in our game and more aggression, being more aggressive in our play, we were getting them stuck in their D zone,” Carvel said. “That really wears you out when you have to play in your own zone for a long time. The overtime was pretty lopsided.
“The one thing about this team is they know what makes them good and when they smell blood in the water, I just thought they took it up a notch and they all played great down the stretch in overtime.”
Carvel said he saw an opportunity when the Bulldogs began rolling only three lines in the third period. He had been matching UMD through the first two periods, but decided not to follow Sandelin and continue to roll all four of his lines.
By the time the game went into overtime, Carvel said he thought UMD ran out of gas.
“We were trying to match, but if they're only playing three lines, I've got to play that fourth line against somebody,” Carvel said. “Eventually I didn't care who they put on the ice. We were just rolling four lines for the most part.
“It's such an asset to be able to do that, to play all your players. And it was great because we're in overtime, I'm looking at the bench, the next line up is completely rested and ready to go and to continue the momentum that we had built.”
Sandelin said rolling only three lines was not the reason his team was winded in the overtime Thursday. Instead it was because of their decision-making in the defensive zone, and because of the relentless pressure UMass put on them each and every shift.
The Bulldogs were forced to expel so much energy defending, they had no energy to go the other way and create any offense, Sandelin said.
“The difference was we couldn't get out of our zone. When you play defense, you run out of gas quick,” Sandelin said. “They did a good job. We knew what they liked to do and how they play as far as pressure and keeping pucks alive.
“We couldn't get pucks out. Some of it was just decisions. We needed to make better decisions, harder plays.”
Matt’s Three Stars
3. UMD junior wing Tanner Laderoute — UMass took an initial 1-0 lead with a power play goal, but Laderoute was able to tie the game 2 minutes and 17 seconds later. He also had a look at a breakaway in overtime, only to be taken down. UMass scored the game-winner shortly after.
And while UMD fans were screaming for a call to be made in OT on the takedown, Laderoute wasn’t after the game.
“I mean, that's hockey,” he said. “I think I had a step on him. He maybe tangled me up a bit, but it's overtime at the Frozen Four. You can't be asking for calls at that time. They're a good team. They have fast skaters too. You've got to battle through.”
2. UMass junior forward Bobby Trivigno — The architect of the game-winning goal, Trivigno took advantage of another UMD turnover in its own zone and nabbing the puck along the boards. He then worked it down low, got himself to the front of the UMD net and slid the puck across the crease for Wait to tap in. Game over.
1. UMass senior goaltender Matt Murray — With starter Filip Lindberg one of four Minutemen out due to COVID-19 protocols, Murray made his first start since Jan. 18. He made 38 saves to keep his team in the game and get them to overtime.
“It's quite a story to be able to overcome that situation of losing that many players,” said Carvel, who was also missing his leading goal scorer. “Everything tonight was a testament to the culture of this team. I'm very proud of them.”