PITTSBURGH, Pa. — In fairness to those who vote on preseason college hockey polls, the St. Cloud State men's hockey team was 13-15-6 in the 2019-20 season.
So it was understandable for the Huskies to not be ranked before this season started. St. Cloud State was also picked to finish fourth in the NCHC preseason media poll. It is fair to say that the Huskies have exceeded those expectations after finishing second in the NCHC in both the regular season and in the NCHC playoffs.
St. Cloud State (20-10-0) also plays Massachusetts (19-5-4) in the national championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at PPG Paints Arena. The Huskies, who went 30-6-3 and won the NCHC regular season title in 2018-19, apparently used the preseason rankings as motivation.
"Let's put it this way, the first thing the guys did at the beginning of the year was put up the top 20 rankings when we weren't in it," said Brett Larson, who is 63-31-9 as the Huskies head coach. "It's really been the motto of this team is that we want to prove people wrong, right up until the last day."
Massachusetts will be making its second consecutive trip to the national championship game after losing to Minnesota Duluth, 3-0, in the 2019 title game. The Minutemen were 21-11-2 and finished second in Hockey East last season before the postseason was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
UMass took second in Hockey East in the regular season and then won the conference tournament to receive an automatic bid to the Minutemen's third NCAA tournament.
"The experience from two years (ago) has been real critical and has been today," UMass coach Greg Carvel said Friday, less than one day after his team beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in overtime in the semifinals. "We're letting the kids rest and recover. Last (time), we had the Hobey Baker (Award ceremony) to run around to and other things.
"We learned our lesson. We felt like we were a tired team going into the championship game last time and now we're doing our best to get our guys re-energized and focused for another tough team from the NCHC."
The two programs have played one another twice, but it was before many of the players in the championship game were born. St. Cloud State beat UMass 3-1 on Nov. 25, 2000, and 5-1 on Jan. 4, 2002.
While they have not faced one another for a long time, they recognize what they see when they watch one another play.
"I think it's going to be two teams with a very similar game plan," Larson said. "You saw where they scored their goals last night (vs. UMD), all within 2 feet of the net. You can tell that they're driven to get there. They're very aggressive offensively to get to the net.
"You can also see in their forecheck — and how active their 'D' are — that they're a real pressure team. They're really a team that takes pucks to the dirty areas quick. Defending that area is going to be critical and doing the same at their end right in the grease pan. Two teams that play hard, play fast, high work ethic and I think they have high skill."
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Coming out of quarantine
Carvel has some decisions to make before the game. Senior wing Carson Gicewicz, junior goaltender Filip Lindberg, sophomore forward Jerry Harding and freshman backup goaltender Henry Graham were all ruled out of the game against UMD due to COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing.
Lindberg (9-1-4), a Minnesota Wild draft pick, leads the nation in goals-against average (1.33) and save percentage (.946). With Lindberg out, senior Matt Murray stopped 36 of 38 shots to get the win over UMD and the Minutemen to the title game.
Gicewicz leads Massachusetts in goals (17). Carvel said at a press conference Friday that the players will need to pass their COVID-19 tests on Saturday morning.
"I think they're here, but they're still in quarantine and I believe they are until midnight (Friday)," Carvel said. "I've not seen them yet, but I believe they are here. Until I see them, I won't make any decisions on anything."
Regardless of who is in the lineup, Carvel said his team is focused.
"The first time you get here, it's fun, it's exciting, you've never done it before," he said of playing in the program's second national title game. "The second time, you're on more of a mission.
"The first time, you learn lessons. The last time we were here, we learned a big lesson because we ran around on this (Friday)... And last time, we didn't notice Duluth running around. We noticed that they knew enough to let their kids rest."