March 1, 2013

Hockey East: Hellebuyck, UMass-Lowell no joke

By Andy Merritt

Connor Hellebuyck’s teammates laugh at him.

When he and fellow UMass-Lowell goaltender Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) start talking shop, the River Hawk skaters chuckle at the two netminders “talking goalie.”

“Talking goalie” means “equipment, style, making saves,” Hellebuyck said. “How you did this, how you did that.”

While the rest of the River Hawks may find their goalies to be a source of amusement, the combination has been no laughing matter for opposing shooters this season – and that goes double for Hellebuyck. While Carr struggled early this year, after a sophomore campaign in which he finished second in Hockey East in goals against average (2.13) and save percentage (.928), Hellebuyck has been lights-out from the beginning in his debut season.

The freshman leads the league with a 1.57 GAA – more than half a goal per game better than Providence’s Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine), who’s No. 2 on the list – and a .940 save percentage. Somewhat more importantly, the River Hawks have lost exactly once in his 12 starts – the first one, at Denver on Oct. 19. Since that 5-1 defeat, Hellebuyck has played in 11 games, starting 10, and the only loss came on Nov. 30, when he relieved Carr after two periods in a 5-2 New Hampshire win.

Otherwise, Hellebuyck has arguably been the league’s best freshman goaltender this year, even if Gillies is seeing almost all of the ice time in Providence while Hellebuyck has split time with his junior teammate.

After the Denver loss, Hellebuyck didn’t get another start until Nov. 24, the River Hawks’ 10th game of the year. Two weeks later, he picked up his first college shutout, making 25 saves against Northeastern in a 2-0 victory on Dec. 8.

Two days later, he had his second shutout, a 30-save gem against Harvard in a 5-0 win.

That sparked a brief alternating rotation between the two UML goalies, until an injury and an illness sidelined Hellebuyck in mid-January. He didn’t even dress for the River Hawks’ 4-4 tie with Northeastern on Jan. 25.

“I guess I gained experience, I got to watch the team and get my energy back,” Hellebuyck said of his five-game respite. When I finally came back, the whole team was playing great, and that just helps.”

Although the River Hawks had lost two straight when Hellebuyck got back between the pipes for the Feb. 15 game against UMass, those losses ended an 11-game unbeaten streak, one of the longest in the nation this year. And the first of those losses was a hard-fought 1-0 defeat to red-hot Merrimack.

Still, two losses can quickly turn into three, then four, and then a legitimate slump. So Hellebuyck needed to take the role of stopper for UMass-Lowell. Five games later, that mission is more than accomplished – Lowell is 5-0 since Hellebuyck’s return, all with the freshman in net. His five straight wins, with a 1.61 GAA and .933 save percentage, earned him the league’s player of the month award for February. It also earned the River Hawks a share of first place in Hockey East – a spot many thought they’d reach easily before the season began, after they returned the bulk of last year’s squad that went 17-9-1 and won its opening-round NCAA tournament game.

While a return to top form hasn’t been a simple task for the River Hawks this year, they’re there now, and that’s due in large part to the freshman goaltender who has given them a spark.

“We have two capable goalies who can go on any given night,” said UML coach Norm Bazin after the River Hawks’ 3-1 win over Boston University on Saturday, Feb. 23. “It’s a nice luxury for this time of year.”

Three nights after the win over BU, Hellebuyck turned in an even more sterling performance, stopping 22 shots in a huge 4-2 win over Boston College. That victory set up the four-way tie for first that has UML, BC, UNH and Providence gearing up for a wild finish to the regular season.

Hellebuyck, ever the humble freshman even with one of the best stat lines in the country right now, put the credit for his recent success on his teammates’ shoulders.

“I feel like I’m getting back in the rhythm, but with the guys playing as well as they are in front of me, I don’t think it really matters how well I’m playing.”

Some would beg to differ.

Player of the Week

Joseph Pendenza, jr., UMass-Lowell

Oh, the River Hawks can score, too. The Wilmington, Mass., native had a goal and assist in each of UML’s victories over BU last weekend, and added two more helpers in Tuesday’s win over Boston College, putting him on a six-game points streak.

Game of the Week

Boston College at Providence, Friday, 7 p.m.

There are four teams in first place entering this weekend in Hockey East, in one of the tightest races in recent memory. It’s likely that won’t be the case on Monday, and the Eagles’ and Friars’ home-and-home series, starting with Friday’s game at PC, will shape that picture directly.

Power Rankings

  1. UMass-Lowell (19-9-2, 13-8-2 HEA) – Since a pair of losses ended their 11-game unbeaten streak, the River Hawks are 5-0-0, and have outscored their opponents 19-7 as they’ve cruised into a tie for first place in Hockey East.

  2. Boston College (18-9-3, 13-8-2 HEA) – The Eagles picked up a huge win over Merrimack on Sunday, which put them back in first place. But a loss to UMass-Lowell on Tuesday means they have company atop the Hockey East standings, including the River Hawks.

  3. New Hampshire (17-8-5, 12-7-4 HEA) – UNH hasn’t lost in its last three, but two of those games were ties – including a surprising draw with Vermont on Saturday. The Wildcats are also tied for first in Hockey East, but have missed some chances to take the top spot outright.

  4. Providence (13-10-7, 11-6-6 HEA) – In one of the craziest Hockey East races to the finish in recent memory, the Friars have quietly found themselves with a piece of first place after losing once in their last nine games. This weekend against BC could have them standing alone atop the standings, or outside the home-ice bubble.

  5. Merrimack (14-12-6, 12-8-3 HEA) – It was a bad time for the Warriors to come up short, losing an overtime decision to BC on Sunday and then dropping a 5-2 loss to an underachieving BU squad two nights later in a blizzard-rescheduled game.

  6. Boston University (15-14-2, 12-8-1 HEA) – Like Matt Damon’s character in “Rounders,” the Terriers just keep hanging around. Even after getting beaten handily by UMass-Lowell on Saturday, they scored three times in the first period against Merrimack on Tuesday en route to a 5-2 win, led by Matt Nieto’s three-point night.

  7. Vermont (10-15-5, 7-11-5 HEA) – The Catamounts are on the wrong end of the big gap between the league’s title contenders and the rest of the pack this year, sitting seven points behind sixth-place BU. They can’t do better than sixth, but will have to scramble to stay in the playoff picture with the three teams below them separated by just a handful of points.

  8. Maine (9-17-6, 5-12-6 HEA) – Led by Martin Ouellette’s 30 saves, the Black Bears picked up a 2-0 shutout of UMass on Friday, but all the good that did was erased the next night in a 5-2 loss to the Minutemen, who still hold a one-point edge for the eighth and final playoff spot in Hockey East entering this weekend’s games.

  9. UMass (11-17-2, 8-14-1 HEA) – The Minutemen snapped a five-game losing streak with Saturday’s win over Maine, but it only gets tougher from here – UMass has two games apiece against first-place UNH and fifth-place Merrimack remaining.

  10. Northeastern (9-18-3, 5-15-3 HEA) – February was a cruel month for the Huskies, who went 2-6-0 – and that includes the non-conference win over BU in the Beanpot.

Andy Merritt can be reached at amerritt@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.