BUFFALO, NY — It was a couple minutes past midnight, but the UMass Cinderella season was showing no signs of turning into a pumpkin.
At precisely 12:02 a.m., Marc Del Gaizo’s seeing-eye one-timer from the top of the circle 15:18 into overtime, capped off the latest game in NCAA Frozen Four history as the fourth-ranked Minutemen from Massachusetts stunned No. 6 Denver in sudden-death fashion, 4-3, in the wee hours of the tournament semifinals Friday morning at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
The triumph sends Massachusetts to the final of the Frozen Four for the first time in program history where it will take on two-time and defending champion, Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday, April 13 at KeyBank Center.
“It’s something you dream as a kid — to go to the National Championships and score. Probably the coolest moment of my life,” Del Gaizo, a freshman from Basking Ridge, N.J., said. “Right now it seems like we’re dreaming… but we’re off to the National Championships and that’s all that matters.”
After Jake Gaudet worked the puck to Oliver Chau behind the net, the sophomore forward circled and passed to a streaking Del Gaizo stepping up into the play from the point.
“I’m not a guy known for a one-timer, but Chau put it on a tee for me there and I just kind of teed off on it. It was a perfect pass, right in my wheelhouse, perfect speed and just got a hold of it… I’m a country club kid,” Del Gaizo said with a laugh.
UMass (31-9) scored three goals in a span of 1:41 off the sticks of Bobby Trivigno, Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard to establish a 3-1 lead after one period of play, but back-to-back goals from Cole Guttman 5:42 apart in the waning moments of the third period tied the game at 3-3 for Denver and sent the tilt to overtime.
Despite letting their two-goal lead slip away as the clock wound down in regulation and sudden-death overtime loomed, Del Gaizo and his defensive partner, Cale Makar, said there was no panic in this team.
“We’re a young team but we learn, just like we learned in Boston and we’ve been learning all year,” Del Gaizo said. “I don’t think there was any panic on the bench. We regrouped and got back together in overtime.”
“Nobody’s panicking. Everybody in the room is calm. We knew we when we got the opportunity we would put one in and this guy did for us,” Makar, the favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award this season, said with a laugh. “We’re very similar players. We kind of go hand-in-hand in the way that we’re moving. When he’s up in the rush, I’m back and vice versa. We read each other very well in the offensive and defensive zone.”
It was a fierce — and feisty — first frame with two five-minute majors and automatic game misconducts for hits to the head called on Niko Hildenbrand and Ryan Barrow from UMass and Denver, respectively.
With the season on the line, the pace didn’t slow in the second period, either, as tenacity yielded yet another five-minute major-plus to UMass’ Mitchell Chaffee. Another open-ice hit at center that appeared to have made contact to the head right in front of the team benches, later in the game was not called. All told, 55 minutes in penalties were called between the two teams resulting in five power plays — including all four goals in the first beginning with Denver’s Colin Staub 8:29 into the game which gave the Pioneers a brief 1-0 lead.
“We wanted to play physical but we weren’t being headhunters in any way,” UMass head coach Greg Carvel said. “It’s our guys trying to play hard and play the right way. Outside of that I thought our first period was outstanding. It was one of those games where the referees dictated a lot of the momentum, I felt.”
“This team, all year long they’ve impressed everybody and tonight was just the next chapter of how resilient they are,” Carvel said. “Overtime, we were down two players, two forwards… we were (only) playing three lines. The kids dug deep and once again proved their resiliency, proved the culture that we have on our team is our strength and it carried us again tonight.”
After a scoreless second period, UMass carried what seemed like an insurmountable two-goal lead into the third but it evaporated quickly when Guttman circled and fired one home from the slot to make it 3-2 with 9:28 left before the freshman from Los Angeles, Calif. connected again with 3:46 to go, converting Tyler Ward’s pass from the corner to knot the game up at 3-3.
With eight NCAA Frozen Four titles, Denver is second, all-time, to only Michigan (9). After the bang-bang goals from Guttman, the Pioneers, which won it all as recently as 2017, seemed poised to make a return to the Frozen Final.
“We thought we’d win the game,” Staub said. “We thought we battled back, were resilient… there was no doubt in our minds going into overtime we were going to win that game.”
“I think we could have got down on ourselves and we didn’t,” Denver head coach David Carle said. “We stuck with our game plan in the second and third, really proud of our effort to be able to fight back and get it to overtime, really proud of our team for everything they’ve down all year long… the adversity we faced, we faced head on and got through it together.”
Filip Lindberg made 37 saves, including 13 in the third and five in overtime, to get the win in between the pipes. His counterpart at the other end of the ice, Filip Larsson, a Detroit Red Wings’ prospect, made 24 saves for Denver (24-12-5).
“We needed a goaltender. We needed him to make saves,” Carvel said. “I’ll be honest, I thought the two goals he gave up in the third period weren’t great goals. You’ve got make those saves. You can’t give up more than two goals. I don’t care if you get 10 breakaways or power plays, you can’t give up more than two goals. That’s our standard. He made some big saves, he always does, but I’m not going to say he won the game. We’re not going to be able to give up three goals on Saturday night and win.”
“It’s been a transition from a few guys all year to now everybody,” Makar said. “I think a guy that definitely stepped up today was Mario (Ferraro). He’s an energy guy. He gets the boys going. We have a lot of guys in this team that can bring the energy, we just need to keep it high.”
There were many contributors to Massachusetts’ first trip to the Final Four, but none bigger than Marc Del Gaizo’s whose brother, Anthony, also laces ’em up for Minutemen. Marc’s 13th goal of the season, at 12:02 a.m., will go down in hockey lore but the best is yet to come.
“It’s a very big moment for our program,” Makar said. “Were not done yet. We’re not going to get complacent. When team’s get complacent they start to die so we’re going to come back Saturday and hopefully it will be a good one, but it’s definitely special for this school and program.”
Carvel hinted Massachusetts hasn’t won anything yet. The Minutemen still have unfinished business finishing off Minnesota-Duluth (28-11-2) on Saturday.
“I hear about and I read about it, but it hasn’t sunk in yet,” the third-year head coach said. “The glory from this season hasn’t sunk in yet. All I know is, in overtime I felt fine. One goal — next goal wins — and I’ll give ’em credit they came out as resilient as you can be — give up a two-goal lead late and win it. That’s a hell of a sign. Tonight, in overtime, I thought they would find a way and they did.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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