UMass-Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck wins Hockey East tournament MVP

Freshman saves his best for title match to lead the way for River Hawks

Boston's Wade Megan (18) skates for the rebound off Massachusetts Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the third period of the NCAA college Hockey East championship game in Boston, Saturday, March 23, 2013. Massachusetts Lowell won 1-0. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Connor Hellebuyck recorded 36 saves in Saturday night’s title game. (AP)

In the last meeting between UMass-Lowell and Boston University, one month ago, Connor Hellebuyck held the Terriers to one goal. In their meeting before that, he allowed none. But the Hockey East final is a different scenario, especially for a freshman, especially for a team that had yet to win the title in program history.

It would have been easy for him to be intimidated, to fold under pressure. It would have been easy for BU to emerge with the victory, extending coach Jack Parker’s career with another chance at the NCAA Tournament.

None of that happened.

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Instead, Hellebuyck again held the Terriers scoreless. This time, he won a championship for his team and a most valuable player award for himself, becoming the sixth freshman goaltender to be named MVP after just the fourth shutout in championship game history.

“I grew up watching college hockey,” the 19-year-old Hellebuyck said of his childhood in Michigan. “It was always the dream to be here, and do what we just did tonight. I’m speechless.”

He was the only one, his modesty putting the win on his team and coaches. But those around him weren’t so reticent. While UMass-Lowell relied on every one of its players to win the title, it relied just a bit more heavily on the man in goal.

“We just couldn’t solve their goaltender,” BU captain Wade Megan said. “That was the bottom line.”

That goaltender is now 18-2 after taking over full-time duties from Doug Carr in the final third of the season. He was the difference between yet another title for BU and a first for UMass-Lowell, which also won the regular-season Hockey East title, and appears poised for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Hellebuyck turned aside 36 shots, including 18 in the second period, and allowed just one goal in two games at TD Garden this weekend. He withstood a barrage in the final two minutes of Saturday night’s game, when BU goalie Sean Maguire was pulled and the trophy was so very, very close.

It was then that BU threw everything at him. It was then that the outcome looked most in doubt. But it wasn’t, because Hellebuyck didn’t budge.

“It was really intense,” Hellebuyck said. “You could see everyone was really digging in and bearing down and doing what they needed to do.”

Including him.

He had some help, from an outstanding effort by the UMass-Lowell defense to some key blocked shots, including one by Scott Wilson in particular. But it was Hellebuyck who was ultimately the one responsible, who ultimately outdueled Maguire, the other freshman goaltender on the ice.

“[Hellebuyck] is unbelievable,” said Wilson, who had an assist on the winning goal. “He’s an unbelievable kid. He’s kind of the heart of our team. He’s like a rock back there.”

That was certainly true Saturday night, as Hellebuyck took everything BU could give out. And it’s been true for the second half of the season, since he started playing regularly after Christmas, earning a 1.49 goals-against average and .944 save percentage entering Saturday night.

As Wilson said, Hellebuyck came to school with one void in his game, the ability to move laterally. Now, after working to improve on that much of the season, he’s one of the best in the conference in that regard — and everything else. That includes what coach Norm Bazin called “his strongest assets,” his poise and calm demeanor.

It showed against BU.

“You don’t win a championship without a great goalie, and tonight I thought he was spectacular,” Bazin said. “He made key stops at key moments to keep the game tied. You can’t say enough about the kid.

“He was the difference tonight.”