PITTSBURGH — He’s as unassuming as they come. Off the ice, UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is soft-spoken and polite.
On the ice, he’s a fierce competitor, and one of the reasons the River Hawks are in the Frozen Four.
When the puck drops Thursday afternoon at Consol Energy Center, the freshman will bring a 20-2-0 record, 1.31 goals-against average, and .953 save percentage into the national semifinal against Yale. Hellebuyck’s signature is his unflappable demeanor.
“I try to be calm at all times, even on the ice, so the guys don’t see I’m emotional,’’ said Hellebuyck. “It’s never a good thing. [Being in the Frozen Four] hasn’t sunk in yet and we’re not going to let it until the summer.’’
Hellebuyck said keeping composed during games is something he has worked on since he started playing in Commerce, Mich.
“I think I was [always calm], I tried to be,’’ he said. “I always had great coaches who emphasized that. I’m so thankful for everyone who has been in my hockey career so far. I think it’s one of the big keys to a goaltender’s game that they need. You have to be poised and calm so the guys around you are poised and calm.’’
Hellebuyck said a turning point came last year when he played junior hockey in Odessa, Texas, for the Jackalopes of the NAHL.
“That was a culture shock,’’ said Hellebuyck with a laugh. “I actually really liked it. I had a great billet family down there. They really showed me what Texas was like. It was a great place to play.’’
It was very different than Michigan. Hellebuyck, 19, said Odessa was equal parts sand and oil rigs but the people were friendly and the food was great.
“The best burger I’ve ever had I got down there,’’ he said. “They’re very nice down there. The people are a little different but everyone is nice.’’
Hellebuyck credited Odessa coach Paul Gillis and his staff for helping him develop.
“They really helped my mental game,’’ said Hellebuyck. “It was exactly what I needed. [Former Odessa general manager] Joe Clark, I still talk to him a lot. He’s always telling me things that are continuing to improve my game. I’m very thankful to have them in my life and I’ll never forget it.’’
Although there could be tension when one player loses his starting job, Hellebuyck said there is no such issue with Doug Carr, who started the season as Lowell’s No. 1 goalie.
“I couldn’t ask for any more than he has done,’’ said Hellebuyck. “Before every game, I’m always asking him what I can expect. He always tells me. He keeps me focused. We share a laugh when we need to. He’s always someone I can always go to for advice. It really helps me improve my game. He knows what it takes. Just having him around is itself a blessing.’’
Coach Norm Bazin said the River Hawks bring a team-first attitude to the rink.
“That’s another good example of team chemistry,’’ said Bazin. “Doug’s a great teammate. I think Connor has been exactly that for Doug early in the year. They’re great friends and they do a good job of supporting each other. It’s certainly a testament to not only Doug and also team chemistry.’’
Peaking at right time
The River Hawks have won seven straight games . . . Lowell has won eight of its 11 meetings with Yale (all in the regular season). The last was at Ingalls Rink in New Haven in 1999 . . . The teams are similar, at least based on some statistics. Lowell averages 3.0 goals per game, Yale 2.8. Yale averages 35.3 shots to Lowell’s 31.4. The Bulldogs are less stingy, allowing 2.6 goals per game, to 2.0 for the River Hawks. Yale’s power play has a higher success rate (21.1, to 16.6 for Lowell), but the River Hawks’ penalty killing is better, with an 85.7 percent kill rate, to 83.5 for Yale . . . The River Hawks have the NCAA’s best record since Christmas (22-3-1) . . . Quinnipiac, the No. 1 overall seed, Lowell and St. Cloud State are in the Frozen Four for the first time. Yale is here for the second time (1952).