UMass hockey: 9-time national champion Denver awaits Minutemen in NCAA Springfield Regional opener

Denver forward Massimo Rizzo (13) is surrounded by defenseman Shai Buium (8), defenseman Kent Anderson (21) and forward Jack Devine (4) after a scoring a goal against Boston College earlier this season in Chestnut Hill.

Denver forward Massimo Rizzo (13) is surrounded by defenseman Shai Buium (8), defenseman Kent Anderson (21) and forward Jack Devine (4) after a scoring a goal against Boston College earlier this season in Chestnut Hill. AP

Denver defenseman Zeev Buium (28) keeps the puck away from Boston College forward Ryan Leonard (9) earlier this season in Chestnut Hill.

Denver defenseman Zeev Buium (28) keeps the puck away from Boston College forward Ryan Leonard (9) earlier this season in Chestnut Hill. AP

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-27-2024 5:06 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Greg Carvel had his house to himself last Saturday, the date of the University of Denver’s NCHC title game with Omaha. If Denver won, the UMass ice hockey head coach and his team would be back in the NCAA tournament. A loss would mark the end of the season for the Minutemen.

His anxiety and nerves couldn’t let him watch.

“I just waited for the text that I knew I was gonna get one way or the other,” Carvel said. “[Director of Hockey Operations] Steve Trachtenberg texted me, ‘Let’s go.’ I said, ‘Denver won?’ And he said no. So I said, ‘What are you texting me for?’ So I sat and watched Toronto and Edmonton play… Denver is a hell of a team, so I figured they’d find a way [to win].”

And win Denver did, cruising past Omaha 4-1 – catapulting UMass into the dance. The Minutemen lost 8-1 in the Hockey East semifinals to Boston College the day prior, which forced them to rely on other teams to assist them into the tournament.

“It’s tough when you have your destiny in your own hands and you let it slip away,” UMass senior captain Aaron Bohlinger said. “We got the second chance we wanted, but it was definitely a pretty stressful day. It ended on a good note, but it was tough getting there.”

On Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m., that same Pioneers team that gave the Minutemen a helping hand into the tournament is their opponent in Springfield. The No. 1 scoring team in the nation and No. 1 seed for the Springfield Regional, Denver enters the MassMutual Center with a 27-9-3 record having won five consecutive games.

UMass defeated Denver 4-3 in overtime in the Frozen Four semifinals in 2019, and got the best of the Pioneers twice early on in last year’s regular season. Carvel did some studying of those games. If his team plays to its highest potential, he likes the Minutemen’s chances to advance.

“I went back and watched parts of games we played them from the past, and I don’t think much has changed,” Carvel said. “They play a very similar game, we play a very similar game. I guess that’s a positive – both teams have had a lot of success doing what they do. I don’t think us changing our game is gonna help us. We gotta be the best at what we do, and if we are, we’ll put ourselves in a real good place to win.”

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Although UMass is the No. 4 seed out of four teams competing at the MassMutual Center, it still earned the favorable geographical draw of staying in western Massachusetts thanks to being the regional’s host school.

That should mean a healthy portion of the stands will be littered with Minutemen maroon.

“[The fans] been great this year at home for us, so to be here only 30 minutes away, it’s definitely something special and something we’re definitely stoked about,” UMass junior defenseman Ryan Ufko said.

Nine-time national champion Denver isn’t too worried about the crowd advantage that UMass may have. In fact, players have said a deafening crowd is only going to energize the Pioneers that much more. Either way, the Pioneers are more focused on playing their style of hockey than they are any external factors.

“We don’t really mind where we have to go or who we have to play,” Denver senior forward Connor Caponi said. “Anybody, any time, any place.”

Since the two teams last met in an NCAA tournament game, both programs have won national titles (UMass in 2021, Denver in 2022). Pioneers head coach David Carle expects a similar feel to Thursday’s game to the one in 2019, with two successful squads battling to advance on the biggest stage.

“We’ve both won national championships since then, so I think we’ve been on pretty good paths,” Carle said. “I’m not surprised that we’re seeing them again in the tournament. They’re well-coached, they recruit well and we feel we have great players and great people in our locker room that allow us the opportunity to compete as well. So we’re looking forward to [Thursday] afternoon.”

A year ago, UMass missed the NCAA tournament with a disappointing 13-17-5 record. The Minutemen had an impressive turn-around this season and are back in the tournament for the fourth time in five tries.

Bohlinger used last year’s slip up as an example to the young guys on the roster. He told them it’s not a guarantee getting there, and that everyone needs to take advantage of the opportunity at hand knowing there may not be another one in their careers. 

The rebuilding phase didn’t last long for UMass because Carvel brought in several program-changing players. He wanted to get back to the culture he instilled, so he brought in veterans like Samuli Niinisaari, young, talented skaters like Aydar Suniev and a terrific goaltender in Michael Hrabal.

“To have a strong culture, you have to have a strong identity,” Carvel said. “That identity was what got us to the NCAA tournament, and we felt we got away from that [last year]. A culture is ultimately about the people in it and their make up… We got away from that, and with the help of the portal, you can make changes pretty quickly now, and we identified what we needed to do to change. You can see it got us back here pretty quickly. I like the make up of this team. I like that when we play to our identity we’re a pretty good – really good – team.”

The Minutemen’s most recent game was the aforementioned 8-1 drubbing at the hands of Boston College. Carvel sat with his team to watch film, learn from it, then had them skate it out of their system during practices this week.

Carvel – along with the rest of the team – understood that for nearly half of the game, they were the better team. UMass is aware of its full potential if they can play an entire 60 minutes of hockey.

“We had two days of practice to try and flush that out, had some video sessions,” Carvel said. “But most of it is messaging, and that message is ‘I believe.’ I told these guys, 25 minutes into that game the score was 1-1 and we were out-shooting them 13 to five… It’s there. It’s there for us. Every game is there for us.”

It’s pretty simple – at least, in Carvel’s eyes – when predicting how Thursday is going to go. Whether UMass wins or not is one thing, but at this point in the year, with a lot on the line, there’s no excuse for the Minutemen not to play their best hockey of the season.

The feeling is much different when you make the tournament as one of 16 teams left. Either bring your A-game, or go home.

“This is so much fun,” Carvel said. “Winter is behind us and spring is here. You smell it in the air. If you’re still playing, you should be so excited and grateful. I don’t know how you don’t bring your best game. This isn’t the middle of January when you’re grinding it out. If we lose, that’s it. I’m so happy that we’re able to be here again. We’ve had success in the tournament, and I’m hoping that continues.”