PITTSBURGH — In a strange college hockey season, where the word “asterisks” was constantly thrown around, Massachusetts ended things with an exclamation point.
Behind a dominating performance from start to finish and a 25-save shutout by goaltender Filip Lindberg, UMass defeated St. Cloud State, 5-0, to capture the program’s first Division I men’s ice hockey national championship.
It was the most lopsided championship game since 2010 when Boston College defeated Wisconsin by an identical 5-0 score.
The Minutemen grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first, doubled that with dominant special teams in the second and then cruised through the final 20 minutes much to the delight of the UMass faithful who traveled to PPG Paints Arena.
The shutout for Lindberg was particularly impressive given that the junior netminder was ruled out of Thursday’s semifinal because of COVID protocols. But after Lindberg and third-string goaltender Henry Graham along with leading goal scorer Carson Gicewicz made the eight-hour drive from Amherst to Pittsburgh on Friday and passed multiple COVID tests, they were cleared to dress on Saturday.
Lindberg said he wasn’t able to skate for the last eight days. Instead he just sat in a hotel room in Amherst, doing nothing but stretching and trying to relax. The turnabout in situation for Lindberg has been a roller coaster.
“Honestly, the day I found out [I couldn’t play] that was probably the worst day I had,” said Lindberg. “But thank God we got the chance to play tonight and got the job done.”
As referenced, special teams played a critical role in the game, particularly in the middle period when UMass killed two penalties, scored a short-handed goal — a highlight-reel tally by senior Philip Lagunov — and capped the frame with a Matthew Kessel power-play goal.
“Special teams played a big role this weekend,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “We had to kill more penalties than we got power plays. But we try to be a really good defensive team and really good on special teams and we were both tonight.”
Massachusetts played opportunistic hockey in the opening period. Though St. Cloud State controlled much of the period territorially, the Huskies mustered just three shots on goal, though that didn’t include Veeti Miettinen’s shot off the crossbar just 90 seconds into the game.
As things settled in for the Minutemen, they found ways to capitalize on mistakes.
St. Cloud State was looking to attack in the UMass zone when defenseman Ty Farmer grabbed a loose puck and hit Aaron Bohlinger with an outlet pass. While Bohlinger was likely to be in alone, two St. Cloud defensemen collided, allowing Ryan Sullivan to jump in the play for a 2-on-0. Working the give-and-go, Bohlinger buried his first collegiate goal at 7:26 for the 1-0 lead.
After UMass killed the period’s only penalty, it was able to extend the lead late. Cal Kiefiuk picked off Sam Hentges clearing pass along the left board, curled below the goal line and fired a goal-mouth pass that Reed Lebster buried at 18:56 for a 2-0 advantage.
Lagunov then scored short-handed at 5:10 of the second and Matthew Kessel scored on the power play at 13:50 to put a stranglehold on the game.
Lagunov’s goal was one that will be shown over and over. It also changed the complexion of the game. Picking up a loose puck on the penalty kill at the defensive blue line, Lagunov accelerated up the right wing. When Nick Perbix went for an open-ice hit and missed, Lagunov was alone on netminder David Hrenak and stuffed a shot under the armpit for a 3-0 lead.
“I think at that point we started pressing a little bit,” said St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson. “We tried to make a zone entry play that was a tough play and then a one-on-one situation where we probably got a little too aggressive. I thought that was the turning point in the game when they were up 3-0.”
After killing the remainder of that penalty and another midway through the period, UMass went to the power play at 12:35 when St. Cloud State was whistled for too many men.
The UMass power play was a clinic in passing and finally Oliver Chau moved the puck back to Kessel who launched it top shelf for the 4-0 advantage.
In the third, UMass scored the only goal, a top-shelf blast by Bobby Trivigno.
For UMass, the national title is the culmination of a remarkable turnaround under coach Greg Carvel.
When Carvel arrived on campus, the Minutemen hadn’t had a winning season in 10 years. His first year, 2016-17, the team struggled to a 5-29-2 mark.
Since that time, the build has been consistent, appearing in the national title game two seasons ago and losing to Minnesota Duluth. They captured the Hockey East tournament title this season and now, 28 seasons after the program was established in Division I, the Minutemen can now call themselves national champions.
“A lot of us came in recruited by coach Carvel,” said senior captain Jake Gaudet. “He had a dream to bring it to a national level and building a culture of really good kids that work really hard and have high character.
“The rest has taken care of itself.”