PITTSBURGH – One team traveled from the shores of Lake Superior, bringing with it a champion's pedigree, having won the past two NCAA men's hockey titles and three since 2011.
Another ventured from the Granite City, a steady, consistent group that's aiming for a breakthrough on the national stage and hoping to fulfill the vision that legendary coach Herb Brooks had more than 30 years ago.
A third trekked from the Minnesota River Valley, arriving with spring in their skates after enjoying NCAA Division I tournament success for the first time after years of gut-wrenching losses.
Together, the three Minnesota teams — Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato — are in Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four. The You-Betcha Brigade invading Yinzer Territory.
"I didn't think we'd have to come to Pittsburgh to play St. Cloud this year," Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said, with a nod to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on schedules. "At this time of year, I'm glad we're still playing."
There is, of course, another team eager to spoil the Minnesota party. That's Massachusetts, a squad that hasn't lost in 12 games and carries the banner for Eastern hockey. The Minutemen, however, received news Tuesday that their leading goal-scorer and staring goalie won't play because of COVID-19 issues.
"People are thinking we're shorthanded, and we've lost a couple good players for this game, but that's all right," UMass coach Greg Carvel said. "The next guys will step in and play the way we want them to play."
At 4 p.m. Central on Thursday, St. Cloud State takes on Minnesota State in the first semifinal, followed by the 8 p.m. matchup of Minnesota Duluth against UMass in a rematch of the 2019 NCAA final. The winners will meet at 6 p.m. Saturday for the championship.
Old rivalry, new stage
In the first semifinal, the Huskies and Mavericks meet in a rivalry that dates to their days as NCAA Division II programs. They were separated by the conference realignment of 2012-13, with St. Cloud State moving to the NCHC and Minnesota State remaining in the WCHA.
They still play often as nonconference foes, and last met in the Mariucci Classic on Dec. 28, 2019, when the Huskies were 7-2 upset victors over the No. 2-ranked Mavericks. The stakes are much higher this time.
"The expectations are not just to get there," Hastings said of the Frozen Four, "but to make sure we have some success while we're there."
Larson and Hastings are friends through coaching colleagues like Minnesota Duluth's Scott Sandelin, but Larson knows when it's time to put story lines in the background and focus on the task at hand.
"It's nice to see three Minnesota teams in it, but I think we've already moved past that," he said. "We're focused on playing a team that just played an amazing game to win the regional."
An argument could be made that St. Cloud State was the most impressive of any team in regional play, beating Boston University 6-2 and Boston College 4-1. Both times, the Huskies erased early deficits and took control of the game.
"No. 1, that is not a good strategy. That's a tough way to win in any of these tournaments," Larson said. "But it does show the resilience and it does show they've been through a lot this year."
When Hastings sees the Huskies, another team immediately comes to mind, which is no surprise because Larson was a Sandelin assistant on two national championship teams.
"You can take the jersey and change it from maroon to black," Hastings said. "They're about as honest as it gets, and they play in all three zones. They look like Duluth."
Dynasty in Duluth
Minnesota Duluth is trying to win a third consecutive national title, a feat only accomplished by Michigan from 1951 to '53.
A victory Thursday night also would put the Bulldogs in their fourth championship game in a row, a feat never accomplished.
Because Michigan was forced to withdraw from the Midwest Regional with COVID-19 issues, UMD had to win only one game to get to Pittsburgh — although that game went five overtimes and required a
tournament-record 142 minutes, 13 seconds to complete. Bulldogs freshman Luke Mylymok beat North Dakota goalie Adam Scheel for a 3-2 victory.
The Bulldogs caught another break Tuesday with the news that UMass will be without forward Carson Gicewicz, whose 17 goals lead the team, and goalie Filip Lindberg, whose 1.33 goals-against average and .946 save percentage both lead the nation.
Sandelin said now is not the time for his team to relax because of the Minutemen's issues.
"They're not going to change the way they play because they're missing a couple guys," he said. "They're going to play hard."
Carvel is hopeful the Minutemen have learned from their 2019 run, when the Cale Makar-led squad lost 3-0 to UMD in the national championship game.
"We weren't mentally tough two years ago," Carvel said. "… We weren't ready for what came at us. Hopefully, we'll be ready Thursday night."