PITTSBURGH — Eight days before Saturday’s NCAA Frozen Four national championship game, Filip Lindberg got the news that he wouldn’t be allowed to play in Thursday’s national semifinal.
The national championship game was also up in the air, pending COVID tests this past week.
The goalie who had amassed a 9-1-4 record as the primary starter for Massachusetts this season – with a stellar 1.33 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage – was devastated to find out he would be quarantined due to contact tracing.
“I mean, honestly the day I found out, that was probably the worst day I’ve had,” said Lindberg. “That was a nightmare.”
Sidelined in a hotel room near campus back in Amherst, Mass. – as were freshman goalie Henry Graham and forwards Carson Gicewicz and Jerry Harding – a nervous Lindberg had to watch his teammates from a 500-mile distance.
“It was something else, just sitting back and watching the guys play when you want to be there and you want to help the team and you want to be a part of that, and there’s literally nothing you can do, just watch,” Lindberg said.
Matt Murray, who started Thursday and made 36 saves in the Minutemen’s 3-2 semifinal victory against Minnesota Duluth, was asked after that game about the news that UMass could be getting his fellow goalies back. He said that he was “happy to get the band back together.”
Lindberg was elated at Murray’s performance.
“‘Mur’ played unreal on Thursday,” said Lindberg. “We push each other every day out there, every day at practice. And he’s a big part of our success, too. And he’s a good guy and he keeps pushing me every day at practice.
It wasn’t until just after Thursday night’s overtime win that UMass coach Greg Carvel was told that Lindberg could be available to play in Saturday’s national championship game.
Lindberg, Graham and Gicewicz were all cleared to travel and were passengers in a caravan that made the eight-hour drive on Friday.
While riding in the car to Pittsburgh – at about 2 p.m. and after a six-hour nap – Lindberg found out that he was going to start on Saturday night.
“I was ready to play no matter what,” Lindberg said. “I rested a lot in the hotel. … So I’m happy I got the chance to play even though the circumstances were kind of weird.”
The first shot attempt Lindberg faced on Saturday night – from former Finnish junior teammate Veeti Miettinen – seemed to elude the UMass goalie. And as the puck rang loudly off the crossbar, gasps could be heard from the pandemic-limited crowd of 3,963 in the arena.
That near miss may have cast doubts to some spectators as to whether starting the Espoo native had been the right decision.
But if there were doubts about whether Lindberg should have gotten the nod, there were no doubts for his coach.
And, as Carvel explained, there had been none all season.
“Filip came to me the end of last year and told me he needed to play more,” said Carvel. “I got really angry. And I said, ‘Be better. You need to be a lot better if you want to play every game.’
“And he did. And he did it because he got mentally tougher. That’s all he needed. He had all the tools. But he needed to get mentally tougher. And this week is a great example of it.”
There was a challenge to Lindberg’s mental — and physical — toughness even in Saturday’s game.
Early in the first period, it seemed as if Murray might be called upon again when St. Cloud State’s Nick Perbix made a move toward the net. UMass defenseman Aaron Bohlinger checked Perbix, rode him into the crease and caused both players to topple over Lindberg, the net sent flying.
“To have to miss a semifinal, to not be able to skate most days, come in and get absolutely railroaded a couple minutes into the game — and he hurt his ankle on that play,” Carvel said. “But he was so good this year because of his mental toughness. That was the problem in the past.”
That transformed Lindberg into a goalie who didn’t lose after mid-January.
Previously, Lindberg lacked consistency, said his coach.
“He was very inconsistent and to me it was because he was — mentally he would get … anxious,” said Carvel. “But he dealt with that. And he found a way to fight through it. And, boy, was he good [tonight].”
Lindberg stopped all 25 shots he faced, including a third-period goalmouth flurry by the Huskies with about five minutes left to keep St. Cloud off the scoreboard.
It was the second straight shutout in the national championship game, but in 2019, it was UMass that felt the sting of a 3-0 loss in Hunter Shepard’s goose-egg performance for Minnesota Duluth.
Saturday, it was Lindberg’s turn to write Frozen Four history.
“I said this plenty of times,” said Carvel. “I think he’s the unwritten story of college hockey this year.”