MANCHESTER, N.H. — Connor Hellebuyck deflected praise as deftly as he did the 28 pucks he stopped for the UMass-Lowell’s Frozen Four-bound hockey team in Saturday night’s 2-0 shutout over New Hampshire in the NCAA Northeast Regional final.
Still, the 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound freshman goaltender from Commerce, Mich., who was unanimously voted the most outstanding player of the regional, was having none of it when it was suggested he was the big reason the River Hawks (28-10-2) defeated UNH for the first time in four chances this season.
Oh, by the way, those three Hockey East setbacks to the Wildcats, by a combined 13-4 margin, came during a 5-7-1 start and when junior Doug Carr was in net subbing for an injured Hellebuyck.
“You know Connor is an exceptional goalie,’’ said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, after Hellebuyck recorded the school’s first NCAA Tournament shutout. “Obviously, he’s had two great weekends and he’s been strong most of the second half. But Doug Carr is someone we might still use before it’s all said and done; he’s an excellent goalie also.
“The tandem of both of them is a real luxury for a coach.’’
When Hellebuyck finally got his turn against the Wildcats, he indeed proved a difference-maker, backstopping the top-seeded River Hawks to their first Frozen Four appearance, pitching the shutout before a Verizon Wireless Arena crowd of 8,357.
“I don’t know if he was the only difference,’’ countered UNH sophomore defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. “I know they’ve been playing on a roll and I don’t think it’s just him. I think their team as a whole is playing better so I wouldn’t give him all the credit. He’s an amazing goaltender who played really, really well.
“But they’ve come a ways since we’ve played them last and they’re a great team,’’ van Riemsdyk said. “[They are] deserving of the things they’ve accomplished all year. So I’d say it was a team effort.’’
But how could anyone discount the impact Hellebuyck has made for the River Hawks? To do so would be to overlook the fact the big goaltender has been between the pipes for UMass-Lowell’s stunning 23-3-1 turnaround, Hellebuyck going 19-1-0 with a 1.18 goals against average and a .957 save percentage after suffering a 5-1 loss at Denver in his first collegiate game Oct. 19.
“Yeah, I’d say he’s been playing pretty well,’’ junior defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said of Hellebuyck, in a bit of an understatement. “When a shot gets through from the point, when a shot comes down on a three-on-two or anything like that, we have a lot of faith in him that it’s going to be stopped right behind us.
“We have a lot of confidence. I couldn’t even describe how comfortable it is for the ‘D’ out there. There’s always a lot of communication between him and the defensemen, which makes it so much easier. We couldn’t be happier to have him in the pipes behind us.’’
After he potted a juicy rebound against UNH’s Casey DeSmith (26 saves) to break the ice for the River Hawks at 19:30 of the second period, sophomore winger Scott Wilson described Hellebuyck as “an absolute rock for us.’’
UNH coach Dick Umile said Hellebuyck’s size is reminiscent of former Canadiens legend Ken Dryden. “He just towers over the net,’’ Umile said. “He’s a pro-type goaltender.’’
“He brings us the absolute confidence,’’ Wilson said. “He might be a quiet kid sometimes, but on the ice he’s one of our leaders. We really feed off of him . . . he’s always talking to us and encouraging us.’’
In turn, Hellebuyck was bolstered by the support of his defensemen, who blocked 17 shots and made it difficult for the Wildcats to play the puck and bring it into the attacking zone.
“I really got to give it to our guys around me,’’ Hellebuyck said. “They’ve been playing so well. They’re very hard-working and they block a lot of shots. They take away shots when a guy is trying to line one up in the slot.
“It’s incredible to have them around me, so it’s definitely not just me. It’s the whole team.’’