AMHERST, Mass. — When Coach Greg Carvel arrived at University of Massachusetts-Amherst from St. Lawrence University in 2016, he inherited a hockey program that had just two winning seasons since 1995 and had won only 11 conference games in Hockey East the previous three seasons.
“We were the joke of Hockey East for a while there,” said Kurt Keats, the only senior on the team who has been in the program for four years. “We definitely were not a source of pride for the university.”
But this season, the Minutemen won their first Hockey East regular-season title and advanced to their first men’s Frozen Four.
They will play eight-time national champion Denver University in the semifinals on Thursday night in Buffalo, with the winner facing the defending champion Minnesota Duluth or Providence in the championship game Saturday night.
Almost from the moment he arrived on campus, Carvel, who on Tuesday was named the national coach of the year, promised a change in culture and fortune for a program that was often overshadowed by in-state rival UMass-Lowell, announcing, “We’re not ZooMass, we’re NewMass.”
Still, in his first season, UMass had only five victories and lost its last 17 games. Last year UMass finished 17-20-2, but did win its first-round series in the Hockey East playoffs.
Signs of a breakthrough came early this season. The Minutemen won at Ohio State, ranked No. 1 at the time, in its second game, then rode a nine-game winning streak to the top spot, sweeping No. 4 Providence along the way. They are ranked fourth in the most recent poll, and are the only Division I men’s team that did not lose consecutive games this season.
UMass takes a 30-9-0 record to the Frozen Four, but after earning its berth in Buffalo, even Carvel admitted, “We’re way ahead of schedule.”
The Minutemen produced this surprising season with one of the youngest rosters in college hockey. Of its 25 skaters, 19 are freshmen and sophomores, including the first-year Finnish goalie Filip Lindberg.
Lindberg took over the starting job from the sophomore Matt Murray, who had won 20 games, in the Hockey East quarterfinals sweep against New Hampshire and has posted three shutouts since. In the N.C.A.A. East Regional, UMass outscored Harvard and Notre Dame by a combined 8-0.
The team’s marquee player, though, is the sophomore defenseman Cale Makar, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 N.H.L. draft. He is expected to join the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup playoffs as soon as his college season ends.
Along with St. Cloud State’s Jimmy Schuldt and Harvard’s Adam Fox, also defensemen, Makar is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the most outstanding player in college hockey. The winner will be announced on Saturday.
Carvel left no doubt on how he thinks the vote should go, saying last week of Makar: “He’s the best player in college hockey. It’s not even close.”
According to Brian Willsie, the development consultant for the Avalanche, Makar has all the qualities necessary for success in the N.H.L.
“To say he’s a mobile defenseman is an understatement,” Willsie said. “His skating is what blows you away. It’s on a different level.”
With 16 goals and 32 assists, Makar, a native of Calgary, Alberta, is tied for third in the nation in scoring. With three points in Buffalo, he would become the first defenseman to lead the nation in points.
“In tight games, in the third periods, he knows how to win games,” Willsie said. “He’s such a driven, focused kid.”
Northeastern Coach Jim Madigan has seen enough of Makar the last two seasons to say, “ He has all the makings of a 15-year pro.”
Makar anchors a defense that is UMass’ strength. Not only are the Minutemen sixth in the country in goals against average (1.97), but their defensemen have accounted for 39 goals and 87 assists, powering an offense that is third in the country at 3.77 goals per game.
Forward Brett Boeing said UMass’s aggressive style starts with its defense.
“We want to force turnovers and then control the play,” he said. “When we’re playing well, you can see the frustration on the other team.”
Carvel, 48, was not thinking about immediately reaching Frozen Fours when he took over the program in 2016.
UMass had been a Division II program when it dropped men’s hockey in 1979. The sport didn’t return to Amherst until the 8,389-seat Mullins Center opened in 1993. After one year as an independent, when it won 20 games, UMass joined Hockey East for the 1994-95 season. UMass received an at-large bid to its first N.C.A.A tournament in 2007, losing to Maine in the quarterfinals.
Despite losing records in all but two of its Division I seasons before this one, the Minutemen have produced N.H.L. players, among them goalie Jonathan Quick and forward Conor Sheary, who have won Stanley Cups.
Carvel’s first objective was to identify the right players to take the team forward.
Keats, who played 35 games as a freshman, was one of those players under the microscope.
“When he came in, we knew he wanted to weed guys out,” Keats said.
That first season, Keats said, players bought in to Carvel’s message, “but we didn’t see the results.”
For the 2017-18 season, Carvel brought in 13 freshmen, including Makar and fellow defenseman Mario Ferraro, the No. 49 overall pick by the San Jose Sharks in 2017. A different attitude arrived with them.
“You could see something starting to develop,” Keats said.
In a season of few regrets, Carvel said he wished success had come earlier for players like Keats and Boeing, who were around when the program was floundering.
“I think they’re a little wistful about that, how success came late in their time at UMass,” he said. “But they will always carry that they were part of the group that turned this program around.”
Published at Thu, 11 Apr 2019 04:14:44 +0000