BUFFALO — UMass has made a habit of reaching unfamiliar territory this season, including ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the country and capturing the Hockey East regular season title, both for the first time in the history of the program.
That trend has carried over into the postseason, with UMass (30-9-0) reaching the Frozen Four and considered by many to be the favorite to win the national championship this weekend. To do so, it will have to overcome a lack of experience that is glaring when compared to the rest of the field.
The Minutemen are appearing in their first Frozen Four, while the other three teams not only have been here before, they have won three of the last four national championships. Providence (2015), Denver (2017), and Minnesota-Duluth (2018) know what it takes to be the last team standing.
“We’re trying to read the room. We’re trying to go off instincts a little bit,’’ said coach Greg Carvel, whose UMass squad will face Denver (24-11-5) in the nightcap Thursday night, with the puck drop scheduled for 8:33 p.m. “It is the disadvantage of our team, is that we’ve not been here. But I said this last week. I had the same question in Manchester [for the regionals]. I’ll take this team without experience over anything else. The quality of the kids that we have, the character, the skill level, their unity, everything, they’re a good group.
“I’m excited to go into this with them. We don’t have that experience, but that’s all right. We have a lot of other things I’m excited about.’’
One experience UMass is drawing on is its last loss of the season, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Boston College in the semifinals of the Hockey East tournament at TD Garden. It was a stunning upset, with the Minutemen appearing to be overwhelmed by the moment, and the prospect of playing in an NHL arena. As they prepare to take the ice at KeyBank Center, home to the Buffalo Sabres, the Minutemen are determined not to suffer the same fate.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) April 10, 2019
“Yeah, we’ve all said this plenty of times. We learned a lesson from Boston,’’ said sophomore defenseman Mario Ferraro. “We kind of turned the page on that. We know what’s at stake. It’s the semifinals, Frozen Four. We’ve got to be dialed in.’’
One way or another, this would seem to be the final weekend that defenseman Cale Makar will suit up for UMass. Selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 draft, the sophomore is expected to turn pro at the conclusion of the season.
“Yeah, from the beginning, my goal was to go play college for two years,’’ said Makar, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which will be announced Friday. “I had some stuff I wanted to work on coming back. I really felt our team could make a run at it this year. We would have the opportunity to play in the Frozen Four.
“I think it’s just a testament to the teammates, everybody coming back, working hard, everybody making each other better.’’
In the opening game of the Frozen Four, Providence (24-11-6) will take on defending national champion Minnesota Duluth (27-11-2) at 5 p.m.
Providence coach Nate Leaman said he sees similarities between this year’s squad, and the one that captured the national championship at TD Garden in 2015.
“Both teams had really high expectations,’’ said Leaman. “I don’t think either team developed the chip on their shoulder, the desperation they needed, until it got to the NCAA tournament. I think that comes with every article that’s been written about us this year has been, ‘The Friars are great. All their analytics are terrific. Second half, it’s going to be all Friars, all Friars.’
“I think both teams developed toughness throughout the year. I think that’s important for this time of year. I think if everything goes smooth sailing, you can get in trouble this time of year. I think adversity is actually a good thing.’’
Friars defenseman Jacob Bryson, selected by the Sabres in the fourth round in 2017, has been a popular subject among the Buffalo media. The junior could turn pro after the season, but did not want to look past Minnesota Duluth.
“As a team, it’s so special just to be here,’’ said Bryson. “Buffalo does make it nicer. We’re mostly focused on Thursday’s game, hopefully winning that one, and taking home a national championship.’’
Frozen Four schedule
■ Minnesota Duluth vs. Providence, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
■ Denver vs. UMass, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
■ Hobey Baker Award ceremony, 6 p.m. (NHL Network)
■ National championship, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)