For the first time in two years, Division I men’s ice hockey will crown a champion when the St. Cloud State Huskies and UMass Minutemen face off Saturday night. Each team enters the championship game with a chance to bring home its first first title. As the Huskies and Minutemen near the pinnacle of the sport, let’s take a look back at their journeys.
St. Cloud State Huskies
St. Cloud State entered the season as underdogs, picked to finish fourth in the NCHC. Yet the Huskies and coach Brett Larson surpassed expectations all season with the ability to rally and win close games. Heading into the NCAA tournament, 52% of St. Cloud State’s wins were one-goal games. The ability to close out close contests helped the Huskies finish in second place in both conference regular season play and their conference tournament.
St. Cloud State entered the NCAA tournament as the second seed in the Northeast region. In the opening game against 3-seed Boston University, St. Cloud won 6-2 to advance. In the regional final against 1-seed Boston College, the Huskies found themselves down 1-0 early when senior forward Easton Brodzinski broke his leg. Despite the injury, the Huskies rallied as a team to score four straight goals to win the game. Brodzinski’s injury has become a defining moment for this St. Cloud State team as they look to “do it for Easton” and win the championship.
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Frozen Four semifinals
In Thursday night’s Frozen Four matchup against Minnesota State, the Huskies entered as the underdogs and undermanned without Brodzinski. The game was a high-scoring affair coming down to the final seconds. Tied 4-4 entering the final minute, St. Cloud State’s Nolan Walker scored the game-winning goal with 53.2 seconds left. The win marked the 10th one-goal win for the Huskies this season.
Key players this season
Forward Nolan Walker
Huskies forward Nolan Walker is third in points on the season with none bigger than his game-winning goal Thursday night. Walker has eight points through three NCAA tournament games and looks to continue to being a consistent offensive force for St. Cloud State in the championship game.
Forward Joe Molenaar
Entering the Frozen Four, freshman Joe Molenaar had played in just 11 games and did not score a goal this season. When inserted into the lineup for the injured Brodzinski, Molenaar was thrust into the spotlight. In the biggest game of his collegiate career so far, Molenaar scored the game-tying goal with 10:14 to go in the third period.
“When the opportunity came I’m just trying to do the best I can to help the team,” said Molenaar postgame.
The Huskies will need Molenaar to step up once again on the big stage, this time, for a chance at a title.
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Forward Will Hammer
As the first St. Cloud-native to play on a Huskies Frozen Four team, face-off specialist Will Hammer is vital to St. Cloud State’s success. From his spot on the fourth line, Hammer scored a key goal against Boston College in the regional final. However, it is what Hammer does away from the net that is important to the team’s success. Hammer’s 56% face-off win rate will be key to St. Cloud State’s championship hopes.
The Minutemen entered the 2020-21 season looking to redeem themselves from finishing as runner-up in the 2019 championship. Under coach Greg Carvel, UMass has ascended into one of hockey’s premier teams after winning just five games five years ago. The Minutemen continued their rise to the top winning the program’s first-ever Hockey East tournament title to enter the NCAA tournament on a high note.
When the puck dropped for the NCAA tournament, UMass continued to show it was one of the best teams in the country. The Minutemen defeated its regional opponents by a combined score of 9-1 to advance to the Frozen Four. However, the success on the ice came with bad news off the ice as four players were contract-traced for COVID-19, keeping them out for the Frozen Four semifinals. Goalies Filip Lindberg and Henry Graham and forwards Carson Gicewicz and Jerry Harding did not make the trip to Pittsburgh for the semifinals.
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Frozen Four semifinals
Once in Pittsburgh, UMass entered the Frozen Four against reigning champion Minnesota Duluth as the Minutemen looked to avenge their 2019 3-0 championship loss. Early on, Minnesota Duluth showed signs of dominance as it did in the previous meeting, outshooting UMass 26-11 through two periods. However, UMass never went away, tying the game 2-2 with 8:25 in the third period before heading into overtime. In an overtime thriller, UMass was able to flip the switch and outshoot Minnesota Duluth 13-2 before ultimately scoring the game-winning goal to advance.
Key players this season
Goaltenders Matt Murray and Filip Lindberg
COVID protocols make each goaltender a key player for the Minutemen. Goaltender Matt Murray was thrown into net for the semifinals after Lindberg was out due to COVID protocols. Up until that point, UMass hadn’t lost in its last 13 games, but all with Lindberg in net. However, Murray had 36 saves against Minnesota Duluth holding his own to help his team get the win.
“He’s a good goalie and he made saves that he needed to tonight,” said Carvel on Murray’s performance. “I give him a lot of credit for how well he’s practiced and his effort and his attitude.”
While all signs point to Lindberg’s return on Saturday night, Murray remains a key player in case of the unexpected.
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Forward Carson Gicewicz
As the leading goal scorer for the Minutemen, Gicewicz’s return is highly anticipated. His hat trick in the regional final put his importance on full display. During his absence in the semifinals, UMass struggled during regulation to get shots on goal. If Gicewicz can clear COVID protocol for Saturday’s game, the Minutemen offense should get a boost for its most important game.
Defenseman Zac Jones
It’s often said that defense wins championships, and UMass defenseman Zac Jones hopes that the cliche proves true. Jones leads the Minutemen in Blocks and is a key defensive force on the ice. But in the NCAA tournament, Jones has been able to contribute on the offensive end as well. Jones had three assists in the tournament’s opening round against Lake Superior St. He also scored UMass’ opening goal in the Frozen Four on a power play to give it an early 1-0 lead. While defense may win championships, Jones’ well-rounded performance on both ends will be key to the Minutemen’s title hopes.