Joseph Pendenza’s apparent goal 28 seconds into the third period of UMass-Lowell’s 4-0 Hockey East championship victory over the University of New Hampshire Saturday night was being carefully reviewed by league replay officials at TD Garden. But, at that juncture, it was readily apparent that even if it was waved off — which it was — UMass-Lowell had the victory well in hand because of the outstanding job done by sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
There was no chance the Wildcats were going to pump in five goals against Hellebuyck, because by then it was evident nothing was getting past the 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound netminder from Commerce, Mich.
And, as it turned out, nothing did.
Before a crowd of 12,051, Hellebuyck backstopped second-seeded UMass-Lowell to its second consecutive Hockey East championship, becoming the first goaltender in tourney history to record shutouts in back-to-back title games and the first to pitch back-to-back shutouts in the semis and title game. He blanked Notre Dame, 4-0, Friday.
“Connor is stellar,’’ said coach Norm Bazin, who rode Hellebuyck all the way to a Frozen Four appearance last year. Hellebuyck entered Saturday’s game as the nation’s leader in goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.938).
“There’s no question that you don’t win a championship without a goalie and he’s provided us with great goaltending all year.
“But I have to tell you, [backup] Dougie Carr has had an exceptional season also. It’s just that we’ve got Connor, and that’s why [Carr] hasn’t played that much more than [12 starts].
“We feel either one of them can give us a great start, but Connor has been carrying the ball here lately.’’
The last goal Hellebuyck allowed in Hockey East tournament play at the Garden came in last year’s 2-1 semifinal victory over Providence. So after making 30 saves against the Wildcats, there was little surprise when Hellebuyck was unanimously named the tournament’s most valuable player.
It was the second consecutive year Hellebuyck was recognized as MVP.
Asked what it is about playing in the Garden that seems to bring out the best in him, Hellebuyck replied, “It’s more the guys in front of me. It’s playoff hockey and we only play at the Garden in playoff hockey and it brings out the best in the guys in front of me. As you saw tonight, they blocked shots and they did everything, so it’s really on them.’’
Hellebuyck was right to praise those who sacrificed themselves to block 26 shots, including six by Jake Suter, whom Hellebuyck credited for helping him make a huge first-period save when UNH’s Dalton Speelman and Tyler Kelleher broke in on a 2-on-0 rush.
“If I’m remembering right,’’ Hellebuyck said, “I recalled Jake Suter working his tail off to get back and forcing that guy [Speelman] wide, so it was just a little pass [to Kelleher] and it was an easy read, but it was all Jake Suter.’’
Of course, it helped to have a netminder like Hellebuyck ready to mop up any mistakes.
“We got some shots, got some traffic in front of their goalie,’’ said UNH senior defenseman Eric Knodel. “But he was good at deflecting into the corners and not leaving too many rebounds out front, and eliminating those second-chance opportunities was key for them.’’
Perhaps Hellebuyck’s closest call came when he had to rely on freshman defenseman Dylan Zink to make a stick save on Jay Camper’s backdoor bid at 6:44 of the third.
“That’s a strong indicator that this team has heart,’’ Hellebuyck said. “We broke down a little bit, and I was forced to go to the left side, but I always trust them back there. They trust me to get the first shot, but when they put it back there I knew someone was going to be back there.’’
Afterward, Knodel raved about the River Hawks.
“They’re a great defensive team and they play their systems unbelievably,’’ he said. “Their defense blocked every shot. Even if we got it three-quarters of the way there, they always had someone there to block a shot.
“They do a great job making sure their goalie doesn’t get the hard saves. He gets the easy saves, which is good for them. They limited a lot of our opportunities, but we had a couple there that we should’ve capitalized on.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.