Sports are filled with Cinderella and underdog stories. Fans love them, teams relish the positions in high-profile games. While on paper, the UMass Minutemen may not be an “underdog” based upon their talent alone, playing against defending national champion the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, as well as undermanned due to a COVID-19 exposure, placed them in this role for the semi-finals on Thursday night. Despite all of that, the Minutemen found a way to persevere, defeating the Bulldogs 4-3 in overtime in an entertaining affair.
Overcoming Missing Personnel
Just days before the team was scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh, the Minutemen announced starting goalie and Minnesota draft pick Filip Lindberg and leading goal scorer Carson Gicewicz would be absent. This meant that backup Matt Murray, who hadn’t played since January, would be the starter. Heading into Thursday’s game, there was a question of how Murray may respond in a game situation. However, he seemed to adjust rather quickly, even with a three-month hiatus from starting a game.
Matt Murray of UMass with one of the best saves you’ll see all year: pic.twitter.com/YE8226rTuV— Evan Marinofsky (@emarinofsky) January 2, 2021
“I don’t think it took me too much time,” Murray stated postgame. “I’ve really made sure to treat practices as games and give it everything I have every single day. And I think that was able to help me put my best foot forward today and it felt natural. It felt great to be back in that.”
Without question, Murray’s play gave his team confidence in the late stages of the third period and well into overtime.
In terms of offense, the Minutemen overcame the loss of Gicewicz through their depth. The overtime winning goal was scored by depth forward Garrett Wait, who transferred to the team just this past summer. Overall, the team rolled four lines and used their relentless forecheck and cycle in the third period to stifle the heavy style of play employed by the Bulldogs.
“Coach kept telling us to keep our feet moving,” Wait stated post-game. “So that’s what we did. We listened to him and we trusted in everybody else, everyone to do their own jobs and just put pucks on net.” This strategy paid off, as did the team consistently utilized their entire roster, even during the late stages of the third period and overtime.
Overcoming Heavy Play and Structure from a Defending National Champion
Not only were the Minutemen able to overcome personnel issues, but they were also able to use their conditioning and relentless forecheck and defensive zone pressure to defeat the defending national champions. “For two periods Duluth is the best team we’ve played this year,” stated Coach Greg Carvel post-game. “They play a really heavy style that we’re not used to playing against. And I think 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. And 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.”
Making adjustments mid-game most certainly led to an increase in scoring opportunities, as did the Minutemen’s conditioning. They managed to maintain a high level of pace throughout the game and seemed energized throughout the overtime. “It’s not just tonight,” Carvel explained. “A lot of games this year we felt our conditioning, as games wore on, we were able to maintain and even push things to a higher level. And tonight we did.”
Minutemen starter Matt Murray confirmed the importance of how they practice as a reason for this success this season as well. “I think it comes down to how hard the guys work in practice, whether it be Monday morning, Monday night or any day else in the week. It’s always guys working hard. And that’s when it pays off is in times like this when you got guys working that hard when no one’s watching.” The team’s ability to roll four lines and rely on energized play kept Minnesota-Duluth on the defensive in the third and overtime, leading to the victory and upset of the defending champions.
Amazingly, UMass is set to have all four players who missed the Frozen Four semifinals return for the final game. After overcoming adversity, they are clearly the favorites heading into a final against St.Cloud State on Saturday. The Cinderella story may be over already, but what was a memorable event in NCAA history won’t soon be forgotten.