The #2 seed Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team opens the NCAA Tournament Friday night in the Worcester Region when they face #3 seed Massachusetts Minutemen. UMass is the defending NCAA Champion, and returns a lot of talent to the ice. Minnesota has plenty of talent of their own, but will it be enough to keep their season alive?
The Gophers enter the NCAA Tournament after their first loss in nine games. They dropped the Big Ten Tournament Championship game to Michigan 4-3 last Saturday. Minnesota scored just 32 seconds into the game, but the Wolverines answered right back and took a 2-1 lead late in the first period after a shot deflected into the net off of Minnesota defenseman Mike Koster’s stick. They would add two more in the second period in a dreadful period for the Gophers, and the Big Ten referees. Michigan would hang on as Minnesota poured on the effort in the last few minutes of the game scoring a pair of power-play goals by Mathew Knies with their goalie pulled to cut the lead to 4-3 before they ran out of time.
UMass advanced to the NCAA Tournament with the automatic bid from Hockey East after defeating UConn 2-1 in the conference Championship game in overtime last Saturday. After closing out the regular season with a pair of losses to Boston College and losing their chance to win the regular season title, the Minutemen went a perfect 3-0 in the Hockey East Tournament winning 4-2 over Providence in the quarterfinals at home before knocking off Mass-Lowell 3-1 in the semifinals at TD Garden. It took overtime to knock off UConn in the title game but Aaron Bohlinger scored just 3:06 into the extra session to give the Minutemen back to back Hockey East Tournament titles.
Minnesota will bring in the same lineup that they have had the past few weeks as freshman Chaz Lucius will once again be out this weekend with an injury. Minnesota is led by the line featuring Hobey Baker Finalist Ben Meyers and freshman phenom Mathew Knies along with Mason Nevers. Meyers leads Minnesota with 37 points and 16 goals in 31 games this season. Knies’s 29 points is third on the team, as his his 12 goals.
Minnesota’s next most prolific line is led by a pair of seniors in Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin along with junior Bryce Brodzinski. McLaughlin is second on the team with 32 points, and Walker’s 14 goals is also good for second on the Gopher roster.
Minnesota will need some great play once again from their all freshman line of Rhett Pitlick, Tristan Broz and Aaron Hugelin. They came on strong late in the game but were mostly neutralized by Michigan in the Big Ten title game. Minnesota will need that line to be an offensive threat if they want to go deep in the NCAA Tournament. Finally Minnesota’s fourth line is led by Jaxon Nelson with Grant Cruikshank and a rotating cast of Jack Perbix and Jonny Sorenson. Nelson opened the scoring last weekend and this line can create matchup nightmares for opponents if they are on their game.
Minnesota’s six defensemen also will need to have huge games to shutdown the high powered Minutemen. Jackson LaCombe has been the Gophers best two-way defenseman of late and is tied for third on the team with 29 points. Brock Faber has been taked with trying to defend the opponents best line as of late and he has played well in what may be his last few games in the maroon and gold. Ryan Johnson, Mike Koster, Mathew Staudacher and Ben Brinkman all have jobs to do and will need to do them well for the Gophers to advance.
Justen Close will be another big reason Minnesota will either advance or head home early. Close went 12-4 on the season with a 1.89 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. He was not elite in the game against the Wolverines giving up four goals, two of which are stops a goalie really needs to make in the postseason. He will not be able to give up that one or two goals a game that he will wish he could have back—and his defense will need to give him some help.
UMass is led by Hobey Baker Finalist Bobby Trivigno. He has by far the biggest offensive threat for the Minutemen leading the team in points with 48 and goals with 20. Freshman Scott Morrow is next in line with 33 points and 13 goals as a defenseman with fellow defenseman Ryan Ufko adding 29 points for UMass. One familiar name that Gophers fans will recognize is former Minnesota player Garrett Wait. He transferred to UMass after his sophomore season as Minnesota, won a Natty title last year and is fifth on the team with 24 points and 12 goals this season.
Minnesota will need to try and solve senior goalie Matt Murray in net. Murray has played 35 games this season for UMass going 21-11-2 with a 2.27 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. Murray played both games against the only common opponent between the two schools this season in Michigan and gave up three goals in each game in losing both games to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
The Minutemen come in on a roll in recent NCAA Tournament play. They are 802 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and 7-1 under head coach Greg Carvel. UMass won last season’s tournament were the runner-ups in 2019. They are a perfect 3-0 in the first round of the tournament.
Minnesota is a perfect 4-0 all-time against the Minutemen but the two teams have not played since UMass’s program resurgence. Minnesota is 1-3 all time in the Worcester Regional, but has not played there since 2008 when they fell to Boston College in the opening round. It will be much like a road game for the Gophers as UMass’s campus in Amherst is only just over an hours drive from Worcester. #4 seed in the region Northeastern is even closer just a 45 minute drive away. Meanwhile the top two teams in Western Michigan and Minnesota both had to fly into the area. The Broncos and Huskies will play in the region’s opening game at 11AM Friday morning with the two winners advancing to play in Sunday’s region final at either 3 or 5:30 PM on Sunday. If Minnesota can play up to their potential, there is no reason why they can’t advance. But UMass is not a team they Gophers can just play in their sleep. No games in the NCAA Tournament are that way anymore, but the Minutemen can easily beat Minnesota if the Gophers play like they did in the second period against Michigan. But when the Gophers are at the top of their game, they are one of the nation’s best and can easily advance to the Frozen Four. What team will show up? That we will just need to wait and see.
#2 Minnesota Gophers:
Offense: 3.61 goals per game (#5 in the nation)
Defense: 2.31 goals allowed per game (12th)
Power Play: 20.35% (27th)
Penalty Kill: 85.42% (12th)
#3 UMass Minutemen
Offense: 3.17 goals per game (#17 in nation)
Defense: 2.33 goals allowed per game (13th)
Power Play: 24.59% (12th)
Penalty Kill: 82.46 % (24th)
HOW TO WATCH: NCAA TOURNAMENT FIRST ROUND
#3 UMass Minutemen vs #2 Minnesota Gophers:
Where: DCU Center, Worcester, Mass
When: 5PM Friday
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5FM/ I Heart Radio