Defending champion Minnesota Duluth presents a challenge for underdog UMass

  • Minnesota-Duluth players celebrate a 4-1 victory over Providence in a semifinal of the Frozen Four NCAA men's college hockey tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Dylan Samberg, right front, center celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period against Providence in a semifinal of the Frozen Four NCAA men's college hockey tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota-Duluth forward Billy Exelll (16) puts the puck past Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey (31) during the third period in the semifinals of the Frozen Four NCAA mens college hockey tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota-Duluth goalie Hunter Shepard (32) makes a save during the third period in the semifinals of the Frozen Four NCAA mens college hockey tournament against Providence Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota-Duluth forward Billy Exell (16) celebrates his goal during the third period in the semifinals of the Frozen Four NCAA mens college hockey tournament against Providence Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota-Duluth forwards Justin Richards (19) and Cole Koepke celebrate a goal during the second period against Providence in a semifinal of the Frozen Four NCAA men's college hockey tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota Duluth defenseman Mikey Anderson (24) and Providence forward Jack Dugan (12) skate during the first period in the semifinal of the Frozen Four NCAA college hockey tournament, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

  • Minnesota Duluth forward Noah Cates (21) takes a shot on Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey (31) during the first period in the semifinal of the Frozen Four NCAA college hockey tournament, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) Jeffrey T. Barnes

Staff writer
Published: 4/12/2019 8:28:05 PM
Modified: 4/12/2019 8:27:52 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Minnesota Duluth is the final boss.

UMass will face the Bulldogs for the national championship at 8 p.m. at the KeyBank Center. It’s the program’s first appearance in the Frozen Four final.

Minnesota Duluth, on the other hand, is seeking its second straight national championship and third overall. The Bulldogs also won the national title in 2011. They’re playing in their third straight championship game.

“We knew coming into the year, everyone is going to be coming for us, a big target on our back,” UMD sophomore Dylan Samberg said. “I feel like the guys have handled that pretty well this year.”

The Bulldogs (28-11-2) defeated Providence 4-1 in the semifinals Thursday, scoring two empty-net goals to seal the win. They feature the fourth-best scoring defense in the country, allowing 1.95 goals per game.

UMD also has a top-10 penalty kill (85.8 percent) and the nation’s 14th-best power play (22 percent).

“We have a pretty good understanding of how they play. They’re like Denver: very defensive-minded team, don’t give you a lot. They’re a little bigger team, play a little heavier style,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “But we fully respect the opponent. We fully respect they’re the defending champion. They’ve been here every year. We understand we’re the underdogs. It’s all right. We’re fine with that.”

There are seven NHL draft picks on UMD’s roster: Mikey Anderson (Kings), Samberg (Winnipeg), Nick Swaney (Minnesota), Scott Perunovich (St. Louis), Noah Cates, (Philadelphia), Riley Tufte (Dallas) and Cole Koepke (Tampa Bay). Compare that to three on UMass.

“I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a disadvantage. It’s something we’ve been growing as a team throughout our entire season experience-wise,” said UMass sophomore defenseman Cale Makar, an Avalanche draft pick. “We’re at the point now where everybody understands what’s at stake.”

Bulldogs goalie Hunter Shepard, who backstopped UMD in last year’s final, ranks fifth in the nation in goals against average (1.82 per game) and is in the top 20 in save percentage (92 percent).

“He’s become more of a leader for our team vocally. He talks all the time on the ice. He’s become more and more vocal in the dressing room,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy, but he’s that guy when he does talk, guys listen.”

UMD features seven players with at least 20 points this season, led by Parker Mackay and Justin Richards with 31 each. Mackay and Swaney are tied for the team lead with 15 goals each.

The national title game will be Mackay’s 14th NCAA Tournament game, the most since Boston College’s class of 2008.

“We have a lot of guys who have played on big stages,” UMD senior Peter Kreiger said. “Coming in and knowing how hard it is to get here, what it takes to get here, cherishing every opportunity because we’ve been fortunate enough to win it last year, and we want that feeling again.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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