March 30, 2014

Ever-steady River Hawks move on to regional final

By Andrew Merritt

Even with havoc surrounding him, UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was steady Saturday night, and that helped the River Hawks get past an equally tough Minnesota State team in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals at Worcester's DCU Center. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

WORCESTER, Mass. – Mike Hastings never actually used Connor Hellebuyck's name when speaking to reporters Saturday night.

He didn't have to specify who he was talking about, though, when he used the word "he" to reference the UMass-Lowell goaltender that had shut his Minnesota State team out for 59 minutes and 49 seconds – just long enough to allow the River Hawks to beat the Mavericks, 2-1, in Saturday's NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal at the DCU Center.

"We knew he was gonna be good," Hastings said. "And he was good."

Indeed Hellebuyck was, making 35 saves to push UMass-Lowell to Sunday's regional final against Boston College. But his counterpart in black and white was almost as good. Freshman Cole Huggins stopped 33 UMass-Lowell shots  – all but one that he saw, as Joseph Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) beat him in the first period. Zack Kamrass put Lowell's eventual game-winner in the net while Huggins was pulled for an extra attacker with 40 seconds to go in the game.

The two stellar goaltending performances, combined with some well-executed defense and a bevy of late near-misses, combined to make for one very entertaining hockey game. Of course, the entertainment was only enjoyed by those outside the glass, as the tension inside the boards ratcheted up with every minute that went by.

The River Hawks took a 1-0 lead with 12:54 gone on Pendenza's shorthanded goal, scored after a shot block by the do-it-all senior who took it back in on Huggins before beating the rookie one-on-one.

But after that, UML and Minnesota State were equal in just about every way, including chances missed.

There was the excellent save Hellebuyck made on Mankato's Chase Grant with five minutes gone in the second, followed only a few minutes later by Dylan Margonari beating Hellebuyck but putting his wrister off the far post.

Later in the period, Hellebuyck weathered the storm as Bryce Gervais and Teddy Blueger swarmed his crease (with some help from forward Evan Campbell, who foiled Gervais' rebound attempt).

On the other end, the River Hawks had several eye-popping opportunities, but Huggins was up to the task. With 2:10 to go in the period, Scott Wilson took a feed from Arnold but saw it stopped by a sliding Huggins, and with 16 seconds to go, Campbell took a cross from Michael Fallon that seemed bound for the back of the net, but Huggins went into a split to kick it aside.

In the third, Derek Arnold (Foxborough, Mass.) took a shot that nearly got through Huggins, but upon review was ruled no goal. And with 5:08 to go in regulation, A.J. White took a long aerial pass at the Minnesota State blue line and raced in on Huggins, but again the rookie was up to the task.

Arnold found a post with 1:55 to go, and it started to seem like all of the River Hawks' chances might come back to bite them, with a frisky Maverick team coming close to tying it again and again.

"We failed to nail down the game several times," said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, who now looks to take his team to a repeat Frozen Four appearance. "They were very good, don't get me wrong, but we had our opportunities to make it 2-0, and that would have eased some tension.

"When you leave it hanging in the balance for long enough, you run the risk, but thankfully for us we got it done in the end."

No matter what, Pendenza said, the River Hawks tried to stay optimistic even as their one-goal lead got more and more fragile.

"You try not to let it creep in your mind. You want to stay as positive as possible, even if it's just saying 'hey, we're going to get our chances, let's keep getting them. It's gonna fall at some point,'" said Pendenza, who scored his 49th career goal in the game. "Some games it will, some games it won't, but it's really important to stay positive."

That positivity stems from a confidence the River Hawks exude, particularly when playing with a lead. Lowell is now 20-2-3 when scoring first this year, and they remain unbeaten at 19-0-3 when leading after the first period.

It starts, of course, with the guy in goal.

"This time of year, you don't win without good goaltending," said Minnesota State captain Johnny McInnis, a Boston native.

And while the Mavericks had a goaltender almost as good as Hellebuyck in the rookie Huggins, they experienced something a lot of teams have gone through: The sheer frustration of trying to crack the UMass-Lowell defense when playing from behind.

"We have no regrets coming out of here, but it is frustrating, I can tell you that," McInnis said.

The way the River Hawks played in front of Hellebuyck was just as important, though. They were only credited with six blocked shots in the game, but it seemed like every one of them came in a dramatic situation, taking away a high-quality Maverick scoring chance.

The game came down to a frenetic final minute, after Kamrass found the empty net from well inside his own defensive zone. The goal at 19:20 of the third hardly put it away, as it turns out, because Zach Stepan finally found a way past Hellebuyck with 10 seconds to go, ending the sophomore's shutout streak at 201:45 – a stretch that goes back to the second period of UML's third Hockey East quarterfinal game against Vermont.

And the final 10 seconds seemed to take forever, especially when an icing call set up a faceoff in the River Hawk zone with 2.2 seconds to go. But Pendenza bookended his keystone effort with a professional, almost effortless faceoff win, and the River Hawks were moving on.

"We're calm," Hellebuyck said. "We don't let the emotions get the best of us."

The River Hawks will need every ounce of that calm confidence Sunday, when they take on a BC squad that hung six goals on Denver before half the arena had settled in for the evening. The high octane offense of the Eagles meets the stone wall defense of the River Hawks at 5 p.m., in a battle of the Hockey East regular season champion (BC) and the back-to-back tournament champs.

Twitter: @A_Merritt