First, there was a game-winning goal with 53.2 seconds left in regulation. Then there was an OT-winner.
It's safe to say the 2021 Frozen Four semifinals was the definition of thrilling.
Before the attention shifts to Saturday night’s national championship between UMass and St. Cloud State, let’s take a look back at the five most memorable storylines from the Frozen Four semifinals.
1. UMass turned things up to a whole new level in overtime
For the majority of the first three periods Thursday night, Minnesota Duluth dominated the stat sheet. The Bulldogs didn’t seem to have too much trouble getting to the scoring areas and when the roles were reversed and it was the Minutemen in the offensive zone, UMass was kept to the outside. Minnesota Duluth led in shots, 36-15, when regulation finished up.
Then overtime came and UMass turned things up a notch or three.
The Minutemen smothered the Bulldogs in the offensive zone, cycling the puck and tiring out the opposition enough to get the puck to the net. That culminated in Bobby Trivigno protecting the puck behind the net, wrapping it around and finding Garrett Wait on the doorstep to poke it past goalie Zach Stejskal.
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UMass head coach Greg Carvel attributed the domination in overtime to one specific thing.
“I think Duluth ran out of gas because they didn’t run four lines,” Carvel said. “The one thing about this team is they know what makes them good, and when they smelt blood in the water, I just thought they took it up a notch.”
UMass outshot the Bulldogs 10-2 in overtime. The shot attempts were even more lopsided: 30-6 UMass.
2. Kyler Kupka and Nolan Walker stepped up huge in Easton Brodzinski’s absence
The biggest question facing St. Cloud State heading into the semis was how will the Huskies fare without Easton Brodzinski? The senior led the Huskies in goals with 13 this season.
St. Cloud State answered that question in a big way, putting up five goals and overcoming Minnesota State’s comeback from down 3-1.
The heart of the scoring came from Kyler Kupka’s promotion from the fourth line to the first line, replacing Brodzinski next to Nolan Walker and Micah Miller.
Kupka potted the Huskies’ second goal of the game. Walker earned the primary assist on it after dancing through two Mavericks defenders before dishing it to Kupka.
Walker tipped home the game-winner with 53.2 seconds left. Kupka was the player who passed it to Seamus Donohue at the point.
The new trio worked against Minnesota State. It’s safe to say head coach Brett Larson probably won’t be moving Kupka back to the fourth line.
3. Matt Murray was the reason UMass forced overtime
As stated above, Minnesota Duluth had UMass on the ropes for the first, second and much of the third period. By regulation’s end, the Bulldogs peppered UMass goalie Matt Murray with 38 shots. He stopped 36 of them.
What made his performance so impressive was he wasn’t supposed to be the starter in Thursday night’s game.
It’s well-documented at this point, but because Filip Lindberg was forced to stay in Amherst, Massachusetts, due to COVID-19 protocol, Matt Murray was thrust back into the starter’s job.
Murray carried the starting job for much of the first half of the season. But when Lindberg returned from injury, the Finnish goalie went on a tear, going on to lead the nation in goals against average (1.33) and save percentage (.946). Thursday was Murray’s first game since Jan. 18.
“It was the goaltending that I was concerned about,” Carvel said after the win Thursday night. “Just that Matt hadn’t played in so long. He’s a good goalie and he made the saves he needed to tonight.”
Murray’s best save came to start the third period when he extended his left pad and stoned Nick Swaney of a goal that would’ve put the Bulldogs up 3-1.
UMass has quite the decision on its hands for the national championship game: Murray or Lindberg?
4. St. Cloud State showed its resilience
Minnesota State looked to be doing the same thing to St. Cloud State it had done to Quinnipiac in the first game of regionals — rally to win after being down 3-1. That’s how it went for two and a half periods Thursday night.
After St. Cloud State jumped out to the early 3-1 lead, Minnesota State stormed back with two in the back half of the second period and then took the lead to begin the third.
This time, however, Minnesota State wouldn’t come away with the win. St. Cloud State fought back with two in the third period — one midway through to tie it and the other with 53.2 seconds left to win it.
“It felt like we had to play a little rope-a-dope tonight,” Larson said of his team’s 5-4 win Thursday night.
This isn’t the first time the Huskies were resilient this season. Their entire year has been a statement on resilience. In the USCHO preseason poll, they were in the “others receiving votes” section. Most didn't pick St. Cloud State as a tournament team, let alone one of the final two standing.
They've also had to overcome Brodzinski’s injury. The Huskies did it against BC and, as stated earlier, they did it Thursday against Minnesota State.
UMass will have its hands full Saturday in the title game with St. Cloud State. One thing is for certain: Don’t ever count out the Huskies.
5. UMass gets added boost with Filip Lindberg and Carson Gicewicz returning
The news came out just minutes after Garrett Wait’s winner crossed the goal line, but it still counts as the Frozen Four.
UMass announced Filip Lindberg, Carson Gicewicz and Henry Graham had cleared COVID-19 protocols and were traveling to Pittsburgh for the national title game.
Stating the obvious here, but that’s a huge boost for the Minutemen. For starters, they won’t have to dress assistant equipment manager Zac Steigmeyer as the back-up. That’s a sigh of relief for the UMass coaching staff.
Most importantly, though, UMass gets its leading goal scorer back, as well as its starting goaltender.
While Murray stood strong for UMass in between the pipes, the loss of Gicewicz was noticeable. For much of Thursday’s game, the Minutemen struggled to get anything going offensively. Gicewicz is 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds — his size and ability to win puck battles completes his line. It was also dearly missed against Minnesota Duluth.
But now UMass gets Gicewicz back, as well as Lindberg. It’s welcome news as the program enters its second consecutive title game.