Good afternoon from Pittsburgh, where we were treated to a fun, intense Thursday night of college hockey with the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals at PPG Paints Arena. St. Cloud State edged Minnesota State Mankato 5-4 with a third-period rally capped by the winning goal with 54 seconds to play. In the second semifinal, Massachusetts outlasted two-time defending champion Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in overtime after rallying to tie it in the third period.
On Saturday night (6 p.m. Central, ESPN), it'll be the Huskies vs. the Minutemen in a game that will guarantee a first-time national champion.
Both teams are holding the video news conferences this afternoon, and St. Cloud State went first. Here are some highlights (I'll post UMass highlights when they're finished later):
Coach Brett Larson didn't get much sleep last night, watching the UMass-UMD game.
"We stayed up watched the game last night and started working,'' he said. "And when we got done working, I thought I was tired and would be able to fall asleep, but I couldn't. I got a couple hours, and we're back at it today.''
When asked about his hockey upbringing in Duluth, Larson credited several of his coaches.
"I was really lucky to grow up in a great neighborhood around great people,'' he said. "Probably one of the first guys I think about is Bill Vukonich, our high school coach at Duluth Denfeld. Played for him in a couple state tournaments. I was lucky and fortunate to play for Mike Sertich at UMD and had a really good experience as a player there as well. I learned a lot from Sertie. I still stay in touch with him, and it's really fun to hear from him after these games. Going from there, I got to play for Mark Johnson in Madison, got to play for Steve Martinson in San Diego. … I really enjoyed my experiences playing hockey, and I learned from so many good coaches.''
On UMass, Larson sees a mirror image.
"It's gonna be two teams with very similar game plans,'' he said. "They scored most of their goals within two feet of the net. They're driven to get there and are very aggressive offensively to get to the net. … For us, defending that area will be critical, and doing the same thing in their end as we did last night. We were able to get a few right in the grease pan.''
Huskies senior forward Will Hammer, who scored against Minnesota State, reflected on the season.
"It's been incredible, just with this weird year with COVID,'' he said. "From the start of the year to where we are now, it's just hard to wrap your head around it. I'm proud of the guys, proud of what we've done so far. We're not finished.''
Sophomore forward Kyler Kupka, who had a goal and an assist Thursday, was thrilled with the depth the Huskies displayed.
"I capitalized on my opportunities, I guess,'' said Kupka, who was moved to a different line to replace the injured Easton Brodzinski. "We needed a bunch of guys to step up. We had Molely [Joe Molenaar] score his first goal, we had Ham [Hammer] score a big goal. It was a collective effort for everyone to bring their 'A' game.''
Coach Greg Carvel is leaning heavily on the Minutemen's experience in 2019, when they beat Denver in overtime in the semifinals before falling 3-0 to Minnesota Duluth in the championship game. After Thursday's overtime win over UMD, he made sure his team rested on Friday.
"Last time, we probably enjoyed the [semifinal] victory too long and didn't get reset and mentally prepared for the next game, which was even tougher,'' Carvel said. "I think we're doing a better job right now from what I'm seeing through our messaging and our players. We celebrated quickly. … You could tell it was like, Mission One accomplished, and we've still got one to go.''
Carvel used the example of NHL teams first needing to lose in the Stanley Cup Final before winning it.
"I think it's similar for us,'' he said. "The first time you get here, it's fun, it's exciting, you've never done it before. The second time, you're more on a mission. First time, you learn a big lesson. And we learned a big lesson when we ran around on this day. Last time, we practiced, we had the Hobey Baker ceremony. … The last time, we didn't notice Duluth running around. They knew enough to let their kids rest.''
Winger Anthony Del Gaizo agreed with his coach's assessment.
"More time in bed is going to be huge,'' he said. "Last night was definitely a grudge match. We're all beat up, we're all sore.''
UMass announced late Thursday night that forward Cardon Gicewicz and goalie Filip Lindberg were joining the team in Pittsburgh after being in COVID-19 protocol this week and missing the semifinal. They still are quarantined and will have to pass a COVID-19 test Saturday in order to play. Carvel wouldn't say if Lindberg, whose 1.33 goals-against average and .946 save percentage lead the nation, would start ahead of Matt Murray in goal.
"I haven't seen them yet,'' he said. "Until I see them, I won't make any decisions on anything.''
Minutemen forward Zac Jones, who scored a power-play goal Thursday, sees both options in net as good.
"We have so much confidence in both our goalies,'' Jones said. "We had no worries in the world when Murray was put in the net. He played great for us yesterday. That second period, it could have been a 5-1 game, but he kept us in it.''