It's no secret that Hobey Baker Award finalist Cale Makar is a big reason the University of Massachusetts' defense corps leads the nation in goals.
But the sophomore is just part of the reason the unit came into the Frozen Four with a combined 38 goals.
Marc Del Gaizo reminded folks of that just after Thursday night turned into early Friday morning at KeyBank Center. The freshman potted perhaps the biggest goal of his young career, the one that enabled UMass to extend its season of firsts with a dramatic 4-3 overtime win over Denver during the second national semifinal contest at KeyBank Center.
Del Gaizo snuck in to the top of the left circle and one-timed a pass from Oliver Chau past the outstretched glove of Pioneers goalie Filip Larsson with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left in the extra session to set off a wild celebration by the team wearing white jerseys, with its band happily serenading the crew from Amherst, Mass.
With the victory, UMass (31-9-0) earned the right to play defending national champion Minnesota Duluth for the crown at 8 p.m. Saturday at KeyBank Center. Duluth advanced with a 4-1 win over Providence.
"I mean, probably the coolest moment of my life," said Del Gaizo, who also had an assist and now has 13 goals and 29 points. "It's the coolest feeling ever. Something you dream as a kid. ... Right now seems like I'm dreaming. But, I mean, we're off to the national championship, so that's all that matters."
A crowd of 13,051 attended both national semifinal contests at the home of the Buffalo Sabres during a long day of Frozen Four competition.
They finally got to head for the exits after UMass' Chau and Jake Gaudet executed a cycle behind the Pioneers' net with Chau finding open space to backhand a pass to a waiting Del Gaizo.
"I'm not a guy known for a one-timer," Del Gaizo said. "Chauzy put it on a tee for me. Teed off on it, perfect pass, right in my wheelhouse, perfect speed. Just got ahold of it and it went in."
"We went into the season knowing that our back end was going to be pretty strong," winning coach Greg Carvel said. "The strength of our team. Again, everybody talks about Cale, sometimes they talk about Mario (Ferraro), but Jake McLaughlin, Marc Del Gaizo, Colin Felix, they're all really good defensemen. I love my back end because they can defend well. They're always part of our offense. They move the puck. They compete."
UMass seemed to be cruising, until a Denver crew seeking to reach its third straight national final rallied from a two-goal deficit midway through the third period.
Center Cole Guttman, who had a three-point night, led the charge for the Pioneers (24-12-5). The Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick scored twice in a span of 6 minutes, 42 seconds to erase a 3-1 hole. The first came after a power play had expired. The Pioneers kept pressing the play in UMass' zone, with Guttman taking a feed near the left point from Tyler Ward, skating in a few strides and snapping a screen shot into the top left corner past Filip Lindberg with 9:28 left.
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Guttman's game-tying goal was hockey's equivalent of a slam dunk as he stood in front of the crease and one-timed Tyson McLellan's pass past a helpless Lindberg. Denver had a chance to win it on a wrap around in the closing seconds but Lindberg denied the Pioneers. Lindberg finished with 37 saves — including a few challenging stops in overtime.
Denver outshot the Minutemen, 40-28.
For a good portion of Thursday's hockey game, it looked like UMass, the longtime Hockey East program that came into this campaign with just three winning seasons in 24 years, would have an extended stay in its first Frozen Four appearance.
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The Minutemen used their lethal power play, ranked second in the country, to turn an early 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead in a blink of an eye. Bobby Trivigno deflected a Jacob Pritchard one-time shot past Larsson at 11:41 during a two-man advantage to tie it.
The power play struck again at 13:04 as Mitchell Chaffee one-time a shot Larsson never saw during a 5-on-3. Eighteen seconds later, UMass led 3-1 and had all the momentum as John Leonard fired a shot through traffic that gave Larsson the slip.
UMass had a few chances to increase its lead but couldn't get another by Larsson, a freshman and Detroit Red Wings prospect that entered the game with a .935 save percentage. UMass held a 20-17 edge in shots through two periods and seemed to be in control with the storybook within reach as Denver had trouble generating quality chances.
During a year in which the Minutemen won their first Hockey East regular-season title, attained the No. 1 ranking in the country for the first time, reached the Frozen Four for the first time — of course they were going to play for the national title.
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They just had to put in some overtime against a gritty Denver team to make it happen.
To think UMass won just five games two seasons ago.
"It's a very big moment for our program," Makar said. "I think the thing we're going to be stressing tomorrow is we're not done yet."
This article is written by Miguel Rodriguez from The Buffalo News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org