March 21, 2014

River Hawks' stalwart defense leads the way past Irish

By Andrew Merritt

Connor Hellebuyck's 35 saves gave him his fifth shutout of the year, and the 11th of his career, setting a new UMass-Lowell record Friday night in the Hockey East semifinals at TD Garden. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON – A pattern is starting to emerge.

Two games in which UMass-Lowell takes an early lead, two victories, two teams eliminated from the Hockey East playoffs.

Friday night at TD Garden, the River Hawks used a pair of first-period goals to cruise to victory over Notre Dame, beating a team that just a week ago eliminated the vaunted Boston College Eagles and scored a combined 13 goals over three games to do it.

All that firepower the Irish showed against the Eagles was snuffed out completely by the River Hawks, who allowed Hockey East's newest team to take 35 shots, but saw all of them stopped by Connor Hellebuyck in his fifth shutout of the year and the 11th of his young career – a new UMass-Lowell record.

Many of Hellebuyck's 35 saves were routine, thanks to the way the River Hawks played after Christian Folin banked a shot in off of Notre Dame defenseman Kevin Lind's skate midway through the first, and Derek Arnold made it a two-goal lead four minutes later on a pretty 2-on-1 wrist shot.

Specifically, the River Hawks played the kind of defense that might have ensured another three periods of shutout hockey. As it was, the 60 minutes UMass-Lowell spent blanking the Irish made it 171:01 since UML last allowed a goal at TD Garden – a stretch that goes back to the opening goal Kevin Rooney Scored for Providence in the 2013 Hockey East semifinals.

But it's the last two games the River Hawks played that have almost instantly turned them into the favorites for a repeat Hockey East title. Just as they took an early 2-0 lead against Vermont in Game 3 of last week's quarterfinal round and applied firm, consistent pressure to clinch that series, on Friday night at the Garden they used the early 2-0 lead to dictate the rest of the game.

By the time Evan Campbell cashed in on a rebound 3:25 into the second period, it was basically a done deal.

"When we get a lead, we play more like ourselves," said Hellebuyck, whose low save total belies his overall performance. The sophomore was steady throughout, but showed some incredible flashes. The thing is, those moments weren't flashy at all. Hellebuyck turned several high-quality Notre Dame chances into ho-hum saves by his impeccable positioning and mobility.

One of the best came with 9:34 to go in the second period, when a poor breakout coughed the puck up to the Irish forwards, and some quick passing put it on captain Jeff Costello's stick. Hellebuyck read the play, and made the move from post to post, arriving in time to smother Costello's shot as if it were a half-speed practice attempt.

There weren't a lot of those moments, though, thanks to the stifling defensive effort the River Hawks submitted – even while adding a fourth goal, from Zack Kamrass off a deflection in front.

"I don't remember specific moments in the game," Hellebuyck said. "What I do remember is a bunch of guys playing in front of me, blocking a lot of shots."

UMass-Lowell blocked 16 Irish attempts in all. On the other end, Steven Summerhays had a rare off-night, allowing the four goals on just 22 shots. But with the Irish offense so thoroughly frustrated, all he had to give up was one and the night was over.

"It's definitely frustrating," said Notre Dame captain T.J. Tynan. "They played a great game. We thought it would be low-scoring, and even though we were pretty sluggish, they played really tight defense."

It was the recipe that worked against UVM in Game 3 last week, although it wasn't the one the River Hawks employed in the first two games of that series.

"Unfortunately we played from behind too much," UML coach Norm Bazin said. "It's the playoffs, and you can't dictate who scores first."

But as the River Hawks showed Friday night, when they are the ones who do find the net first, it's awfully hard for opposing teams to find a path to victory.

Twitter: @A_Merritt