AMHERST — TD Garden’s lights shined a bit too bright the last time the UMass hockey team played there.
The atmosphere of a Hockey East semifinal with nearly 12,000 fans overwhelmed the then-top-ranked Minutemen in 2019. The regular season conference champions fell to a Boston College team seeded seventh but one that had played many games in the Garden between the Beanpot and previous semifinal trips.
“It’s one of those things where if you have experience it’s really helpful and critical. We didn’t really know what to do,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “We weren’t ready. It was a bit of a spectacle.”
Now the Minutemen are back in the Garden in the Hockey East semifinals after three years away. The tournament was canceled in 2020 and played solely on campus sites last season, when UMass won its first Hockey East tournament title. The Minutemen, the No. 2 seed, will face No. 3 UMass Lowell in the second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Boston.
Four UMass players were freshmen on the ice in 2019 and return as seniors: Anthony Del Gaizo, Ty Farmer, Colin Felix and Hockey East player of the year and Hobey Baker finalist Bobby Trivigno. Goaltender Matt Murray didn’t play in the game but was on the bench.
“It still leaves a little sour taste in our mouths our last results,” Felix said. “Experience is everything, especially with the guys from last year, they’ve played on some big stages. All of our guys have.”
UMass (20-12-2) addressed the 2019 debacle this week in service of helping prepare the team for what to expect. Carvel and his staff have now been there before, too, and know how to ensure the team is more ready this time against the River Hawks.
“It was important for us to talk about it and make it a part of their preparation, understanding that my focus needs to stay on what I need to do,” Carvel said. “We need to be mentally prepared.”
On top of dealing with the environment, the 11th-ranked Minutemen also have to be primed for another physical game against UMass Lowell. They’ve faced the River Hawks three times this season and are 2-0-1, only falling in a shootout at the Tsongas Center.
“It’s going to be physical, and it’s going to come down to one or two mistakes. We’ve just got to make sure we capitalize on our opportunities and not give up any,” Del Gaizo said. “I’m going to have to bring my big boy pants this weekend and help anchor the team.”
UMass Lowell lost to UMass in the championship game last season at the Mullins Center. The River Hawks haven’t played at the Garden since 2017, when they were the No. 1 seed and won the title.
“I think it’s going to be awesome. I hope the place is full and everybody in there from the state of Massachusetts is cheering for one state school or the other,” Carvel said. “Two teams that have become rivals, and I think it’s great. Two programs that are doing things the right way.”
The River Hawks (21-9-3) are ranked 13th in the country. Their goalie Owen Savory was named a second-team Hockey East all-star after finishing second in the league in goals against average (1.85) and save percentage (.929).
Forwards Carl Berglund (19 assists) and Andre Lee (16 goals) were on the Hockey East third team after co-leading the team with 28 points each. UMass Lowell has won its last four games and took down Merrimack 7-2 in the quarterfinals.
“The one thing I really respect about Lowell is that I watched a video from five years ago, they play the exact same way today,” Carvel said. “They’re very structured, very well coached. They compete hard. If you don’t match structure, compete, you’re not going to win.”
The Minutemen dialed in deliberately on their tasks in both zones and on special teams. They also know they’re going to have to match the River Hawks’ physicality to return to the championship game.
“I think our team is built on guys that want to be heavy and play the body,” Felix said. “Going into a weekend where we know that’s the only choice we have kind of excites some guys.”
Kyle Grabowski can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.