Hockey East Tournament Championship: Connor Hellebuyck returns to and conquers TD Garden

Matt Dewkett (mrd-photos.com)

For the second straight season, a Connor Hellebuyck shutout led UMass Lowell to a Hockey East championship.

BOSTON, Mass. -- It was early in Saturday night's Hockey East championship, and the game was still scoreless between UMass Lowell and New Hampshire. The Wildcats were applying some pressure on the River Hawks, and a neutral zone turnover sprung Tyler Kelleher and Dalton Speelman on a 2-on-0 break.

But Connor Hellebuyck was there to stand tall for the River Hawks, which is nothing new for the reigning Hockey East champions.

After backstopping the River Hawks to a conference championship and Frozen Four appearance in 2013, the sophomore turned in another impressive performance at TD Garden for this season's Hockey East tournament, leading Lowell to a 4-0 victory over New Hampshire in the championship game.

Dating back to last year's tournament, Hellebuyck has now run a shutout streak at TD Garden up to 230:01. He ended this season's Hockey East tournament on a shutout stretch of 142:14, beginning late in the second period of Game 3 of Lowell's quarterfinal series against Vermont. But after becoming the first goalie to ever post a pair of shutouts in the same tournament, Hellebuyck said it's not the building, but the kind of hockey that has inspired him on this recent run.

"It's definitely just the playoff hockey," said Hellebuyck. "Everybody plays better in playoff hockey, and you're only at the Garden for playoff hockey.

"With the pressure on, guys just come in to perform."

The Saturday shutout in the championship at TD Garden marked Hellebuyck's third consecutive in the building. He blanked Boston University in last year's finals, and then the Fighting Irish and the Wildcats in 2014. And for the second consecutive tournament, Hellebuyck took home MVP honors, becoming the first player ever to win the award twice.

"Connor is stellar; there's no question that you don't win a championship without a good goalie," said Lowell head coach Norm Bazin. "He's provided us with great goaltending all year."

And Hellebuyck did it the way he always has: with his 6-foot-4 frame and steady positioning, Hellebuyck rarely makes the dramatic, lunging saves because he's always square to shooters. On the early 2-on-0 break, Hellebuyck made the save with relative ease, moving right-to-left to answer the shot. (Hellebuyck deflected praise on the play to Jake Suter who came back on the backcheck, and called it "an easy read.")

And as Lowell continued to run up the score Saturday, all New Hampshire could do was grow more frustrated as the game went on.

"It happens to us in practice. By Fridays and Saturdays I don't want to shoot at him anymore," joked senior Joseph Pendenza. "Anytime you have a goalie like that, he pumps us up. The stops that he makes when we're in a tough rut; he really pumps us up, and gives us confidence back there.

"Hockey is a game of mistakes, and even though we are going to make a few mistakes here and there, we know he's got our back."

Hellebuyck's stellar collegiate career has also coincided with UMass Lowell's ascension as a Division 1 program. Before last season, Lowell had never won a Hockey East title. And at a time where the league isn't exactly without depth—at least five teams from Hockey East will be included in the field of 16 for the national tournament—Lowell has announced itself with a pair of conference titles.

"It's huge for the program," said Pendenza of the team's recent success. "What we've kind of been through, and what we've kind of done with the program–Norm has had a huge part in that as well.

"After our freshman year we had our doubts about what was going on; we won five games, we weren't sure what was going to happen with a new coach coming in.

"The one common thing coming out of that year was we never wanted to experience that again."

There's still more hockey left to play for for both Hellebuyck and Lowell. After getting bounced in last year's Frozen Four by Yale, the River Hawks will have another chance at a national title, something that's now on their minds having conquered Hockey East.

"I still think we have more in us because we improve everyday, and we always have more to give," said Hellebuyck. "The guys in front of me are playing great right now. They're playing great defensively, and they're producing a lot of offense.

"We let it sink in tonight, and probably tomorrow, and then after that we turn the mindset and we go. This season isn't over and we'd like to see more."

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