Rough start, great finish
After growing pains, Hellebuyck big for UMass-Lowell
When Connor Hellebuyck arrived at UMass-Lowell, this freshman goalie was eager to make an immediate impact for the River Hawks.
But when he was tapped to start the second game of the season against Denver on Oct. 19 –- and suffered a 5-1 setback against the Pioneers -– Hellebuyck began to realize his transition to college hockey would not happen instantaneously.
|RIVER HAWKS MAKE HISTORY|
Derek Arnold scored with 8:41 left in the third period and UMass-Lowell held off Boston University 1-0 on Saturday night to win its first Hockey East tournament championship and end Jack Parker’s 40-year run as head coach of the Terriers.
River Hawks freshman Connor Hellebuyck stopped 37 shots, including a flurry in the final minutes after BU pulled its goalie and the Terriers frantically tried to send the game into overtime and prolong the storied career of their retiring coach.
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Hellebuyck began playing club hockey at an early age with his older brother Chris, and then spent one season in Junior hockey with the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League after high school, but still needed to mature and get better before earning a starting position for a team in the ultra-competitive Hockey East.
“I was trying to do too much when I first got here,” Hellebuyck said. “I needed to slow down and look at the long process. The coaching staff said it was like a marathon. There was a big development process that needed to take place that I didn’t realize when I first got to school.”
For the next seven games, Hellebuyck rode the bench while last season’s starter, junior Doug Carr, got the ice time. In the meantime, Hellebuyck worked on his game with goalie coach Cam Ellsworth.
“That was probably the most important part of this year,” Hellebuyck said. “I got back to working hard and realizing that I needed to focus on the little things and trying to get better if I wanted to be successful in this league.”
Hellebuyck got the nod as the starter against Princeton on Nov. 24, and earned his first collegiate victory in a 3-1 win against the Tigers. After that, he and Carr split time minding the net until an injury sat Hellebuyck down for a five-game stretch between Jan. 19 and Feb. 3.
Hellebuyck, a native of Commerce, Mich., returned to the ice Feb. 15 against Massachusetts, and has played every minute since, posting a 12-1 record while allowing just 17 goals during the 13-game span.
“He’s been very strong -– there’s no question,” UMass-Lowell head coach Norm Bazin said. “When a freshman comes in and makes an impact, it’s an achievement. When they are playing as well as Connor, is it is quite an accomplishment. He’s very poised for his age. He’s got a calming influence on the D-corps and I think a key part of our team defense is he’s so calm under pressure. He has a great demeanor for his position and that has a domino effect as the game wears on.”
The mental part of his game is something Hellebuyck has especially tried to improve upon since the early part of the season.
“I was always worried about starting and taking the [starting] spot and being ready,” Hellebuyck said. “I really needed to relax, gain confidence and realize it was a marathon and I don’t need to rush into it. I can’t get mad when I don’t play or mad when I get scored on. That’s definitely changed.”
“He’s a pretty level-headed kid,” Ellsworth said of Hellebuyck. “I think his confidence comes from the work he puts in, along with the work the rest of the team does. When he plays, that is the fun time because he’s put in all the work.”
Standing tall at 6-foot-4, Hellebuyck has heeded Ellsworth’s advice of playing “big and square,” and playing to his size rather than jumping all around to make saves.
“He worked really hard at refining a lot of the fundamentals of his game,” Ellsworth said. “It’s a lot of repetition whether it is save selection or movement. He’s put a lot of extra time in.”
The hard work has paid off with an 18-2-0 record and .900 winning percentage, which ranks second in the nation. Hellebuyck also paces the nation with a .949 save percentage, and ranks second in Division I with a 1.39 goals-against average, but he is quick to credit his teammates –- especially the defense -– for his success.
“I had to trust the guys around me,” Hellebuyck said. “They are incredible players and do their job so well. When I trust them, it makes the game easier for me.”
The River Hawks have definitely benefited from the trust between Hellebuyck and the defense, riding a hot streak all the way to the program’s first Hockey East championship. Hellebuyck combined for 70 saves on 71 shots in victories against Providence (2-1) and Boston University (1-0), including 36 saves in the shutout of the Terriers, to earn Hockey East Championship Most Valuable Player honors.
“It’s so special,” Hellebuyck said. “It’s a great feeling knowing the fans are cheering you on. The greatest part of it is for the seniors who were on the team when the program only had five wins … they stuck with it and now they have a championship. The seniors care so much and that wears off on the younger guys, and I think that has helped our team become better.”
The league title also helped the River Hawks claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA championship -- the first time the program will make back-to-back appearances in the NCAA postseason since moving to DI in 1983-84.
UMass-Lowell is the top-seeded team in the Northeast Regional, and will open play against No. 4 seed Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. ET Friday at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H. The winner will play the winner of New Hampshire-Denver at 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday.