Short trips, tall expectations as Gophers opponent UMass works to defend its first NCAA hockey title
The Minnesota Gophers haven't seen much of the UMass Minutemen, and vice-versa heading into their NCAA regional showdown on Friday. While the Gophers are the higher seed, UMass will be the true home team, which suits Minnesota coach Bob Motzko just fine.
AMHERST, Mass. – Things are supposed to get tougher for college hockey teams the deeper they go in the playoffs. But at least from a travel standpoint, things are getting more simple for the UMass Minutemen as they head into NCAA tournament play.
“Ecstatic,” was UMass coach Greg Carvel’s word to describe the mood when they learned they would play their NCAA tourney opener in Worcester, Mass., just over an hour from their home rink.
“I’m glad we don’t have to jump on a plane,” he said. “I’m guessing it will feel like a home ice advantage for us. It will be the shortest road trip of the year. Pretty damn good for the NCAA regionals. It’s the shortest we’ve ever had to travel to play a NCAA game.”
Carvel inherited a mess of a hockey program in 2016 and promptly cleaned house. By year three he had the Minutemen in the Frozen Four, claiming the Hobey Baker Award and advancing to the national championship game (a 3-0 loss to Minnesota Duluth). Last year they went one step further, beating St. Cloud State 5-0 for their first NCAA hockey title. With a 22-12-2 record and a third seed in their regional, Carvel’s team is in a unique position.
“We’re a three seed in a really tough region, and I kind of like that we’re going in as an underdog,” Carvel said. “And at the same time, we’re the defending champions. We’re going to do everything we can to defend another title.”
Sunday night, upon learning they would face the Gophers in Friday’s late game, Carvel and his staff watched four recent games by Bob Motzko’s club. If they have any “insider” information on the Gophers, it would come from Edina, Minn., native and former Gophers forward Garrett Wait, who scored a dozen goals as a senior for UMass this year.
We’re a three seed in a really tough region, and I kind of like that we’re going in as an underdog. And at the same time, we’re the defending champions. We’re going to do everything we can to defend another title.
“We know they’re a great team with one of my very good buddies on it,” said Gophers co-captain Sammy Walker, who played with Wait for Edina High School and in college. “He’s an awesome guy, so it should be really fun.”
Wait played in 40 games over two seasons with the Gophers and scored three goals. At UMass he has skated in 60 games and scored 21, including the overtime winner that beat Minnesota Duluth in the 2021 Frozen Four semifinals.
“His stats speak for themselves, so we thought it was a good risk for us and it turned out to be a great situation for us,” Carvel said of the decision to add Wait to their roster after he left the Gophers in the summer of 2020. “He does the little things that a lot of people might not notice, but we do.”
While Worcester is a neutral site, the proximity to UMass and countless alumni from the school means that the Gophers will be the de facto road team on Friday, even though they will wear the white sweaters and have last change. That is fine with Motzko.
“We’re a good road team, and we need to get on the road right now,” he said, noting the Gophers last road game was a 6-4 win at Penn State on Feb. 19. “We’ve been home too long, so I think it suits up well… We’re going to be a fired-up group to get out of here. We need some momentum, and we’re going to need to find it out in Massachusetts.”
Asked about the Gophers and their unexpected January switch from Jack LaFontaine to Justen Close in the net, Carvel noted that he hasn’t seen a lot of Minnesota, but knows that in-season disruptions can either build or destroy a team.
“I haven’t been watching them. I’ve been a little busy in Hockey East,” Carvel said, after his team finished tied for second in their conference in the regular season and beat UConn in overtime for the playoff title. “I was aware that LaFontaine left, and obviously that’s a pretty big disruption. But also, things like that provide opportunity. When things like that happen either they’re going to fall apart or come together. It probably brought them together.”
The Hockey East playoff championship was played another hour down the road from the UMass campus at TD Garden in Boston – the same rink that will host the Frozen Four in a few weeks. If the Minutemen can win two games in Worcester, they will get another relatively short bus ride to extend their season. But Carvel is not one to look that far ahead or get caught up in that hype. He is focused on a Friday date with the Gophers and nothing else.
“We’ve got just another game on Friday night,” he said. “They’re all the same. You win and you move on.”