BUFFALO – One bomb. That was the difference in a riveting and sometimes bizarre Frozen Four semifinal between UMass and Denver that saw UMass win 4-3 in overtime on a blast from freshman defenseman Marc Del Gaizo.
The riveting part was obvious; the bizarre came in the fact three different players were assessed five-minute majors and tossed from the game for head shots, with UMass losing two of their top wingers in Niko Hildenbrand and Mitchell Chaffee. But thanks to a mobile Minutemen defense led by the pairing of Del Gaizo and Colorado Avalanche super-prospect Cale Makar, UMass was able to persevere and clinch its first-ever berth in the national championship game.
While a ton of ink has already been spilled on Makar, his partner is an intriguing prospect in his own right.
Del Gaizo was a potent weapon from the blueline last season in the USHL with the Muskegon Lumberjacks, leading the league in goals by a defenseman with 12 and ranking third in points with 38 in 59 games (one point behind future UMass teammate Ty Farmer, interestingly). And while some scouts were interested in his services, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound rearguard was passed over in the draft. This summer, expect his name to be called for sure.
“I liked him last year in Muskegon,” said one scout. “Moves the puck, transitions really well, plays big minutes and he’s a strong kid.”
For Del Gaizo, his final year in Muskegon really pumped up his confidence and getting passed over in the draft was just another piece of motivation for the New Jersey native.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” he said. “I’m undersized and I’ve always had everyone looking over me; it’s just something that fuels my fire.”
Few will be overlooking him now. The fact is, Del Gaizo has been pretty great as a freshman and it’s because of his chemistry with Makar – not solely because of Makar – that the pairing works. Both players can rush the puck and both know when to hang back as supporters.
“We’re very similar players,” Makar said. “We go hand-in-hand in the way that we’re moving. When he’s up in the rush, I’m back, or vice versa. I think we read each other really well. We’re able to communicate well on the defensive and offensive zone.”
The mobility of both players is impressive and it’s wild to think that UMass has another high-end puckmover on the back end in San Jose Sharks prospect Mario Ferraro. But a deep blueline is a luxury their coach is happy to exploit.
“I love my back end because they can defend well,” said Greg Carvel. “They’re always part of our offense. They move the puck. They compete. That’s all the good teams now, you have to be like that. Denver is like that. Their back end is the same. I’m comfortable with any of those guys in there in any situation. I don’t think a lot of coaches can say that. That’s quite an asset to have as a coach.”
While UMass is definitely losing Makar to the NHL as soon as this tournament is finished, the returning presence of Del Gaizo and Ferraro (plus incoming freshman Zac Jones, who will also be drafted this summer out of USHL Tri-City) will keep the party going on the back end.
Right now, Carvel is just happy that Del Gaizo decided to step into that shot in overtime.
“Marc is a heck of a hockey player,” he said. “I was on him because every time he got the puck on the blueline tonight, he wanted to do a dipsy-doodle spin-around. The other team is skating up the ice with it. I told him, ‘Shoot the puck.’ He had no choice for that one. He hammered that one.”
And that gave UMass a date with the defending champions from Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs have a pretty impressive blueline themselves, with NHL picks such as Scott Perunovich (STL), Dylan Samberg (WPG) and Mikey Anderson (LA). Which team will triumph? It may come down to those elite blueliners on either side.