LOWELL — There is a game within a game that begins well before UMass-Lowell heads to the ice for practice at Tsongas Center.
It might start with a mock staredown or a verbal challenge in the locker room. The forwards and defensemen tell Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Carr that this is the day they are going to get scored upon.
The goaltenders respond with a smile and a simple, “Not today, guys.’’
The Us versus Them mentality is lighthearted and all in fun but it also accomplishes something else — it makes the netminders more sharp and forces the skaters to bear down on their shots.
It worked for Lowell in last weekend’s Hockey East tournament, during which Hellebuyck earned back-to-back shutouts against Notre Dame in the semifinals and New Hampshire in the championship game. Hellebuyck takes a 141-minute, 55-second shutout streak into Saturday’s NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal against Minnesota State at the DCU Center in Worcester.
“Competition is a big backbone of our team,’’ said coach Norm Bazin. “We play a lot of small competitions within practice to help our competitive spirit even grow as the season goes on.’’
Senior forward Derek Arnold said Hellebuyck and Carr are so competitive, it forces them all to get creative in terms of scoring.
“They don’t let in too many shots in practice and any shot you do get by them, you’ve got to crack a smile and be proud of it,’’ said Arnold. “[Hellebuyck] is a fun guy to be around and loves to joke around, and Dougie, too. They are guys who take pride in stopping pucks and will do anything to keep it out of the net. Little jokes here and there to us that we haven’t had many goals in practice really get to us forwards and [defensemen] and we just try to bury as many as we can.’’
The River Hawks are a squad that scores by committee. Senior Joe Pendenza leads the team with 29 points. Fifteen players have 10 points or more. Last weekend, they scored eight goals by eight skaters. Arnold said because they face such difficult conditions in practice, it prepares them for opposing goalies.
“You’ve got to be on top of your game to score against [Hellebuyck and Carr] and you have to be on top of your game to beat other great goalies, as well,’’ said Arnold. “Shooting on two high-class goalies in practice every day just helps the transition to the weekend and it definitely helps each individual with their goal-scoring mentality. If you can score on these guys at practice, you can score on anybody in the country.’’
The River Hawks are like a well-oiled machine. Hellebuyck has a 1.73 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage, both first nationally in Division 1.
He credits his defensemen and forwards for their strong play in front of him and Arnold said it revolves around a team-first mentality.
“Everyone’s going on the right path right now,’’ said Arnold. “Connor has been playing great. I think he’d be the first one to tell you it’s not just him. They are team shutouts. Our defensemen have been playing stellar, our forwards have been playing great, we’ve been blocking shots, and Connor has been calm, cool, and collected in key situations.’’
Hellebuyck said it’s an exaggeration to say the puck looks like a beach ball to him right now but he does feel good about the way the squad has responded to the challenges.
“I just try to do my job and the guys in front of me make it really easy for me,’’ said Hellebuyck. “Without that, it could be completely different. When you’re tuned in, and this time of year your back is against the wall, you’ve got to play your best. I feel like when you’re playing your best, you’re picking up pucks instantly. This is the best time of year, this is what you play for.’’
The River Hawks advanced to their first Frozen Four last season.
“Last year’s run definitely helps, especially Connor, going through it all as a freshman and a young kid,’’ said Arnold. “Now he’s that much more established with a full year and two [Hockey East] championships under his belt. In these key situations, he’s calmer. You see in games, he’s not making crazy acrobatic saves. He’s being tall in net and making the saves look easy.’’
One person who has had a significant impact on Hellebuyck’s game is the veteran Carr. The senior and sophomore are very close friends.
“Our families sends messages back and forth and pictures of us together,’’ said Hellebuyck. “When we won Hockey East, the first person I wanted to celebrate with was him. He was actually chucking his gloves at me, too [at TD Garden].’’
Former Bruins general manager Harry Sinden always said the only people who understand goaltenders are other goaltenders, and Carr said that is pretty true.
“Obviously, we have a special relationship,’’ said Carr. “It’s a relationship I don’t have with anyone else on the team. We are in the same position and we both compete and we try to support each other.’’
Hellebuyck said as much as he enjoys the daily banter between he and his teammates, it really does help in the end.
“They are always talking about how they are going to beat me,’’ he said. “I’m throwing it back at them on how they’re not. I’m always challenging them to make me better and they challenge me to make them better.’’
Carr said it not only keeps it fun, it keeps everyone on their toes.
“It’s almost like we’re on a little team against our own team,’’ said Carr. “We always tell each other when we’re going to the net, ‘No goals.’ We try to shut down our own guys and make that a game ourselves.’’
So far, so good.