MANCHESTER, N.H. — The hottest goalie in college hockey is going to the Frozen Four.
UMass Lowell freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck registered 28 saves to lead the River Hawks to a 2-0 victory over New Hampshire in last night’s Northeast Regional final at Verizon Wireless Arena.
Lowell, the Hockey East regular season and tournament champions, improved to 28-10-2 and advances to the national semifinals for the first time in program history.
The third-ranked River Hawks will face West regional winner Yale on Thursday, April 11, at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Lowell handled WCHA tournament champion Wisconsin on Friday night and settled an old score with the Wildcats last night. UNH beat Lowell three times in the regular season and finished at 20-11-7.
“This is almost like a surreal experience for us,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “It is such a great accomplishment and I’m really proud of our group. . . . We came here for two games and we came out on top.”
Hellebuyck has backboned the River Hawks run to the championship weekend. Hellebuyck blanked Boston University in the Hockey East title game last weekend. He followed up his Most Valuable Player award at the Hockey East tournament with the same honor this weekend at the Northeast Regional. Hellebuyck tied the school record with his sixth shutout of the season. He improved to 20-2-0 with a stellar 1.31 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage.
“It is always exciting to play another Hockey East team because it is always a good hard-working game,” said Hellebuyck. “I have to say the ‘D’ played really good tonight, they kept a lot of the shots out and they blocked a lot of shots.”
UNH didn’t make things easy for the River Hawks despite losing two of its best players to head injuries in Friday’s win over Denver.
UNH played without leading scorer Kevin Goumas (10-32-42) and top center Grayson Downing (15-16-31), which forced coach Dick Umile to juggle his top three lines.
“Obviously it changes a lot of things like faceoffs and the power play, they are two pretty powerful players,” Umile said. “They are a big part of our offense.”
Lowell took a 1-0 lead on a great individual play by sophomore left winger Scott Wilson with 29.7 seconds to play in the second period. Wilson circled the UNH net and threw a backhand shot that was blocked by goalie Casey DeSmith (26 saves). Wilson got the rebound on the forehand and flicked the puck inside the near post for his 16th goal of the season.
“The anxiety levels are up when in tight games and good players like (Wilson) make good plays at crucial times,” said Bazin.
Lowell collected the crucial insurance goal at 13:58 of the third period. Freshman right winger Adam Chapie forced a turnover in the Lowell zone and led a scramble up ice. Chapie controlled the puck into the left circle, cut toward the UNH cage and fired a backhander that beat DeSmith high to the far side.
“It was a big goal to add to our cushion,” Bazin said. “A 1-0 lead against UNH isn’t very settling when you are a coach standing behind the bench.”