Frozen Four: UMass hockey’s defensive identity the execution of Greg Carvel’s vision

  • Freshman defenseman Aaron Bohlinger delivers a hit against Lake Superior State in the NCAA East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn. UMass has developed into one of the nation’s premier defensive teams and plays a heavy, physical style. It resembles their Frozen Four opponent, Minnesota Duluth, and is part of coach Greg Carvel’s vision for the program. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass junior forward Anthony Del Gaizo delivers a check against Bemidji State in the East Regional final in Bridgeport, Conn. UMass has developed into one of the nation's premier defensive teams and plays a heavy, physical style. It resembles their Frozen Four opponent, Minnesota Duluth, and is part of coach Greg Carvel's vision for the program. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass Head Coach Greg Carvel tosses a puck to a group of players during practice Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the Mullins Center practice rink. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/7/2021 8:28:03 PM

When Greg Carvel arrived five years ago to coach the UMass hockey team, he had a vision of how he wanted to run the program. The former NHL assistant and college head coach conceived a culture built on playing the game the right way and recruiting athletes with good character.

Playing the “right way” involved strong defensive principles, being unselfish offensively, staying disciplined and excelling on special teams.

Two years in, Carvel saw what the execution of a vision like his can look like when the Minutemen fell to Minnesota Duluth in the 2019 national championship game. Now, two years later as they prepare to face the Bulldogs in the Frozen Four again Thursday night, the Minutemen are approaching what Carvel always thought they could be: a heavy, defensive juggernaut that can excel in the postseason.

“Two years ago, that was our vision, we were just wo years into our plan. That team was mostly freshmen and sophomores who were young and inexperienced,” he said. “When we stepped into that game you felt the experience of Duluth, you felt their size, you felt how stifling they were defensively. We’ve had two years to continue to mold ourselves like that. We just feel like we’re further down the road.”

Those freshmen and sophomores are now juniors and seniors, UMass has become one of the best defensive teams in the country this season.

The Minutemen allow the second fewest goals in the nation per game — 1.7 — close behind Minnesota State (1.52), which will face St. Cloud State in the other national semifinal. They have seven shutouts this season, two in the past three games. UMass has only allowed more than one goal once this postseason, which began March 14.

“We’re not a super-skilled team by any means. The kids are committed to playing what I believe is the right way: Limiting teams, frustrating teams and then being opportunistic,” Carvel said. “We don’t sit back. We play the team hard going forward and hard coming back. It’s how I want my teams to play. We’ve done a good job down the stretch here refining it.”

Any strong defense starts with the goaltender, and UMass has two excellent ones. Junior Filip Lindberg has played the last 12 games and posted a 9-0-3 record. He leads the nation in both save percentage (.946) and goals against average (1.33). The Espoo, Finland, native was named a Hockey East second-team all-star. But he won’t be between the UMass pipes when the puck drops at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. Lindberg, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, is one of four players who had to stay back in Amherst because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols.

Enter Matt Murray, UMass’ career leader in wins (51) and shutouts (11). (See story, Page D1)

“We’ve had really good details in our own defensive zone, as well as being able to be tight and strong, hard and fast in the offensive zone,” Murray said. “We’ve got a group of guys that battle day in and day out, and they want to be here. It comes down to will a lot of times, and we have a lot of that on our team.”

Three of those defensemen have been selected in the NHL draft: sophomores Matthew Kessel (St. Louis Blues) and Zac Jones (New York Rangers) and junior Marc Del Gaizo (Nashville Predators). Carvel has called them the best defensive corps in college hockey.

“We’re all committed to playing defense. It’s not jut our defensive corps but also our forwards,” Del Gaizo said.

“They do a good job back checking and keeping things out from the front of our net. It’s a great credit to the guys and their work ethic and sacrificing for each other. We’ve got a tight group this year, and it shows in our defensive zone.”

That hard-nosed identity didn’t develop immediately. The Minutemen started the season 2-3-1 and gave up 10 goals in two games against Boston College. They were also one of the nation’s most penalized teams.

Once UMass cleaned up its infractions, the pieces fell into place. The Minutemen finished as the least-penalized team in Hockey East and boast one of the country’s best penalty kills at 91.4 percent, so even when teams have a man advantage, they can rarely capitalize on it.

“We have guys, every time we’re on the ice, that are locked in to play defense,” UMass junior forward Bobby Trivigno said. “They’re not looking for offense. They’re focused on the task at hand, which is defending the net. That’s been huge for us throughout the year. It comes down to competing and wanting to do it. We have a group, whoever’s on the ice, we’re not cheating for offense, we’re looking to play sound D.”

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