BUFFALO, N.Y. — When the Frozen Four began, Massachusetts was the apparent answer to the old “Sesame Street” question: Which of these things doesn’t belong?
After all, Providence, Denver and Minnesota Duluth made up three of the last four national champions.
UMass, in startling contrast, had never even been to the Frozen Four before, much less win it all.
So when the Minutemen defeated Denver in overtime after surrendering a 3-1 third-period lead, conventional thinking would have said that the white-knuckle victory would make the Minutemen more battle-tested for a championship game against a Duluth team appearing in it for a third straight year.
Far better that the game go into overtime than be the kind of wire-to-wire win they enjoyed over Harvard and Notre Dame in the Northeast Regional.
That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
And while Denver came close to killing UMass with a dominating third period, it could not slam the coffin on the Minutemen, who rebounded in a big way in OT.
So UMass was now stronger, more ready to face Duluth. Right?
Instead, the Minutemen were indifferent at best about the possible benefits.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit,” Cale Makar said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to be prepared for whatever comes our way. It was a fun win, going into OT. Hopefully, we don’t have to go through that again.”
UMass coach Greg Carvel went even further, shooting down the battle-tested theory entirely.
“No, I don’t feel that way,” he said. “[I’m] just glad we have a day off in between. We should be able to recover and be fully energized to go.
“Whatever style of game [it was] last night — which apparently was very physical because everybody was getting thrown out — we’ll be set for Duluth. We have a pretty good understanding of how they play. They’re like Denver: a very defensive-minded team [that] doesn’t give you a lot. They’re a little bigger team, play a little heavier style.
“We’ve played Providence three times this year, a very similar team, another heavy team [and won two of the three].
“But we fully respect the opponent. We fully respect they’re the defending champion. They’ve been here every year.
“We understand we’re the underdogs. It’s all right. We’re fine with that.”
UMass will be welcoming back Niko Hildenbrand and Mitchell Chaffee, who both received five-minute majors and game misconducts for hits to the head, Hildenbrand’s just six minutes into the game and Chaffee’s late in the second period.
Both play right wing, which created a chasm at the position, and they are also two of the team’s four top penalty killers, a major void Thursday night. Chaffee is also the team’s top goal-scorer as well as the physically largest Minuteman player in terms of weight, the only one in excess of 200 pounds.
Their return should be a major lift to the team.
“When we came off the ice, they were high-fiving and hugging everybody,” Carvel said. “You could tell by looking in their eyes those kids had been sitting in terror. None of these kids want to be a reason why a season like this comes to an end.
“They both really are impactful players on our team. Niko is our captain and plays big minutes on the kill. We needed a lot of that last night.
“We’ll receive the absolute best they can give the team tomorrow night.”
In the locker room after Marc Del Gaizo scored the overtime game-winner, Hildenbrand embraced his teammate.
“Thank you, man, for saving me,” Hildenbrand said.
As Hildenbrand and Chaffee return, UMass lost Bobby Trivigno, who was suspended for the title game due to a postgame review of a forearm to the head late in the third period.
“[Chaffee and I] definitely have to bring energy,” Hildenbrand said after the win, not yet aware of the Trivigno suspension.
“How do you not get up for a national championship? We talked about it, we joked about it. Maybe we’ll have a little more gas than some of the other guys. We’ll be ready to go for sure.”
As will all of the Minutemen except for Trivigno, the freshman sparkplug who had scored 28 points this year and provided surprising physical play considering his 5-foot-8, 152-pound frame.
“I love him,” Carvel said, almost certainly knowing of the suspension but not able to mention it prior to the NCAA’s 2 p.m. announcement. “He’s tough as nails, scores big goals and plays every situation.
“As coaches, there are certain kids you want on your team. Bobby is one of those kids. [He] plays the game on edge. He knocks down as many guys of the opponents [as] anybody on our team. He’ll knock down three guys a game. Good, physical hits.
“He scores goals, goes to the front of the net, does it all. Unbelievable player.”
And a huge loss.
The Minutemen, however, survived the loss of Chaffee and Hildenbrand on Thursday. They’ll need to survive the loss of Trivigno on Saturday to win the national championship.
“We came here to win two games, not just one,” Jacob Pritchard said.
Thanks to Matt Vautour from Masslive.com for use of the Hildenbrand quotes.