This was the game that NCAA hockey desperately needed.
Following yet another suffocating semifinal win from the defending champs from Duluth, UMass and Denver staged a game that filled the arena with wild goals, improbable comebacks, three ejections, and a gripping overtime climax. The sudden-death blow was struck by UMass freshman Marc Del Gaizo just past midnight, a blistering 30-foot slap shot, ending a hockey drama for the ages. Based on chants of “Let’s go, UMass!” reverberating through Buffalo’s Key Bank Center 15 minutes after completion, college hockey had just received its much-needed jolt.
The hero was a Jersey guy, a flashy skater with a funny accent who played in the shadow of Cale Makar all season. At game’s end, he was the player fielding the first question, feeding the national media hungry to anoint the next star. Marc Del Gaizo did not disappoint. “It’s probably the coolest moment of my life,” he said to titters from press row. “Right now it seems like I’m dreaming. We’re off to the national championship.”
Fans knew the boilerplate script for college playoff hockey—perimeter grinding—had been scrapped at the get-go. The daily grind had been replaced by frenetic action, fueled by overzealous zebras. Six penalties, including two ejection majors, resulted in a total of four power-play goals amongst the 21 shots on goal, a tsunami of offense by recent tournament standards. When the ice chips settled after 20 minutes of play, UMass had won the special teams wars, and led 3-1. Over 13,000 hockey fans in Buffalo weren’t sure what they witnessed, but there wasn’t a single complaint.
The game’s equilibrium was restored the next period, and UMass maintained its two-goal lead despite taking another major penalty. Coach Greg Carvel had now lost two rugged right wings and was forced to scramble. Everyone at the benches was sweating this night. “That was not comfortable losing those guys,” Carvel said.
So the guy known as Carvy scrambled his lines, finding brand-new combinations on the fly. He almost pulled it off, until Denver made magic in small spaces—twice in the latter stages—to tie the game in the latter stages of regulation. The national coach of the year had to earn his money during the third intermission.
“As soon as we came off the ice, the body language, the hanging, the mopiness,” Carvel said, describing the despondent room. “I said ‘Fellas, Done. Change. One goal, next goal wins.’
“Tonight, in overtime, I felt they were going to find a way.”
Although Denver had three glorious chances in overtime, the Minutemen of Massachusetts controlled the extra session, pouring a half-dozen shots on the Denver net. Sophomore Oliver Chau fed a puck into the strike zone of his freshman stud, who went into golf mode on opening day of the Masters. “Chausy just put it on a tee for me,” the Jersey guy said. “Right in my wheelhouse, and I just got a hold of it.”
It was an appropriate ending to a gripping contest, a ripper off the post, the seventh goal off the 68th shot. This was a night where oppressive coaching took a back seat to fun. Denver died a glorious death in sudden death from a kid’s mighty blow. Wagon-wheel hockey was back in vogue at the Frozen Four.
It sets up a national championship showdown steeped in contrasts: offense versus defense; Hockey East versus the NCHC; the irrepressible force meets the immovable object. The champions take on the new kids on the block. College Hockey Saturday has become appointment viewing once again.