BUFFALO -- Mario Ferraro isn't one to back down from a challenge, even if it means stepping out of his comfort zone.
Ferraro, a self-described leader by example, was challenged at the start of this season to become a more vocal leader. It was part of the package when he was named an alternate captain for the University of Massachusetts by coach Greg Carvel.
"I think my leadership has come a long way," the sophomore defenseman said. "Now I've got a letter on my jersey. I'm always trying to lead -- everyone in here's a leader -- but to have a letter on your jersey is something I'm very proud of and thankful for."
His leadership was on display during a wild 4-3 overtime win against Denver in the semifinals of the Frozen Four in Buffalo on Thursday. Massachusetts surrendered a two-goal lead in the third period and had two players ejected in the first period for separate hits involving contact to the head before freshman defenseman Marc Del Gaizo scored the winning goal at 15:18 of overtime to send Massachusetts to its first championship game.
Massachusetts, which was 5-29-2 the season before Ferraro arrived, will play the University of Minnesota at Duluth for the national championship Saturday. UMD, the reigning national champion, defeated Providence College 4-1 in the first semifinal.
Ferraro had the primary assist on the power-play goal that provided the 3-1 lead in the first period. He finished the game with three shots as well.
"He's definitely one of the best leaders I've ever played for," said defenseman Cale Makar, a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche and one of the finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. "Comes to the rink every day with the most energy I've seen out of anybody in the entire world. You know he's going to compete. Every day you step on the ice with him, he's the guy you want to compete against in every single drill; he's going to make you better every single day."
Ferraro (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the second round (No. 49) of the 2017 NHL Draft while playing for Des Moines (United States Hockey League).
He had a strong first season for Massachusetts, scoring 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 39 games and setting the record for the most points by a freshman defenseman in program history. While his point totals dipped in his second season to 13 (two goals, 12 assists), he improved his overall game.
"I've seen a lot of growth in my defensive game. That's where I've been relied on a little bit more this year, as opposed to offense," Ferraro said. "Obviously, I'm trying to improve on my offensive game, trying to produce as much as I can but I think that throughout this year, as it's gotten later in the year and into more important games and leading into the Frozen Four, I think I've been relied a lot more on defense."
The 20-year-old has been to two development camps with the Sharks and has taken advantage of the opportunity to improve.
"You learn a lot just being there surrounded by more prospects and players on the [American Hockey League] team," he said. "I've learned a lot about being consistent and being better at the little things, like having a good stick or even something as simple as passing the puck when the ice isn't as good."
Last year, a familiar face joined him in the Sharks prospect pool: Massachusetts sophomore forward John Leonard. San Jose selected Leonard in the sixth round (No. 182) in the 2018 NHL Draft.
Leonard scored the third goal Thursday, on a pass from Ferraro.
"I was really stoked and ecstatic," Ferraro said. "He deserves it. He's a great player and to have him on this team with me, it's something really special."
Said Leonard, "He's one of my best friends on the team. We room together at school and we're living together next year. He's a great guy, great teammate, great leader, and I can't say enough good things about him."