After UMass clinched an appearance in the men’s Frozen Four for the second time in three years last week, the team had hoped to draw upon the experience from two years ago, when it advanced all the way to the championship game in Buffalo, to help eliminate distractions.
That would prove to be a tough task when it was learned last Friday that four members of the team would not be making the trip to Pittsburgh after a positive COVID-19 test among one of the players. The other three players were forced to stay home because of contact tracing, and have continued to test negative all week.
Among the four not available for Thursday night’s game is junior goalie Filip Lindberg, who leads the nation in both save percentage (.946), and goals against average (1.32) while posting a 9-1-4 record.
Losing a player of that caliber would be devastating for most teams, but UMass has benefitted from depth at the position, with senior Matt Murray splitting time with Lindberg throughout the last three years before Lindberg took over in late January, taking sole possession of the net and going 9-0-3 down the stretch.
Prior to that, Murray had gone 9-4 with a 2.01 goals against average and .913 save percentage. He’s the school’s all-time leader in wins (51) and shutouts (11). Two years ago, he posted 20 wins, but struggled in the opener of the conference playoffs. Lindberg was summoned, and started the rest of the way as UMass reached the title game. Now, Murray gets his opportunity to play in the Frozen Four, where the Minutemen will face Minnesota-Duluth, the two-time defending champions who blanked UMass, 3-0, in the 2019 championship game.
“I’ve made sure to maintain a high work ethic and make sure that I’m ready for any kind of opportunity,” said Murray. “It’s an opportunity to not only get back in the net but to be a contributor to our team’s success.”
Coach Greg Carvel had been impressed with Murray’s work ethic all along, something he mentioned to goalie coach Jared DeMichiel last week even before the team was aware that Lindberg would not be available.
“I’m just really impressed how hard Matt’s continued to practice when we’ve finally after three years have gone to one guy consistently. His attitude has been outstanding,” said Carvel. “Opportunities keep coming. You don’t know when they’re coming. This is a big one for him. I’m excited for him. He’s been a great teammate. He’s been a great goalie for us.”
Third string goalie Henry Graham is also among those not in Pittsburgh, which left the team searching for an additional goalie for practice. The first thought was to see if one one of the players would give it a shot, but there were no volunteers. The team turned its attention to senior student equipment manager Zac Steigmeyer, who played at Springfield Cathedral with former UMass star John Leonard.
The team then scrambled to add him to the roster, going through compliance, and Steigmeyer suited up for practice Wednesday. An equipment malfunction cut short his time on the ice, his skate blade falling off in the first drill.
“His couple of days in the spotlight got shortened by a large percentage,” Carvel said of the mishap. “I hope we don’t have to see him again. He’s a great kid,” said Carvel.
Murray doesn’t plan on relinquishing the role after sticking it out for his entire career. The thought of transferring to another program where he could be the sole starter was never a consideration.
“Obviously, you want to be the guy playing, but Filip and I have had nothing but good healthy competition,” said Murray. “There’s no complaints from my end at all. I’ve had my opportunity, and he’s had his, and this is one of my opportunities I need to take advantage of.”
Carvel believes the focus will be less on Murray and more on the rest of the roster. He points to the team’s defense, discipline, and special teams for UMass’s success. The team ranks second in the country in goals allowed, as does the penalty kill at 91.4 percent. The power play is fourth nationally at 22.3 percent, and the four shorthanded goals have the Minutemen tied for fourth.
“I’m not concerned about the goaltending,” said Carvel. “I’m concerned about the team in front of him and hopefully he has an easy night because the team in front of him plays well.”
Frozen Four schedule
Thursday, April 8
St. Cloud State (16-9) vs. Minnesota State (22-4-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
UMass (18-5-4) vs. Minnesota Duluth (14-10-2), 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
Saturday, April 10
7 p.m. (ESPN)
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.