BOSTON — It has been more than 171 minutes since Connor Hellebuyck has allowed a goal at TD Garden.
Enough can’t be said about the other-worldly numbers he’s notched while at Massachusetts-Lowell. In two years, he has 36 wins, a career save percentage approaching .950 and he’s on his way to leading the River Hawks to a third consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
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But make no mistake, Friday’s 4-0 win over Notre Dame in the Hockey East semifinals was not just Hellebuyck continuing to dazzle with athletic saves and excellent positioning.
The team in front of him took advantage of opportunities: an early fortunate bounce, a Notre Dame team that was off its game, and two chances on the power play in the second period to put the game to bed.
The efficacy of Lowell’s approach — attacking the Irish in the neutral zone — was surprising given how Notre Dame strangled Boston College’s explosive transition offense last week, using puck possession as a tool.
To a certain extent, the River Hawks gave the Irish a taste of their own medicine.
“It’s been our game plan for most of the season,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “If we don’t attack, we’re not very good.”
Even though the River Hawks were leading early, the Irish had plenty of reason to believe a comeback was in the cards. The Irish had allowed five goals in the first period of games in the Hockey East tournament, and won three of four games.
But the River Hawks never let momentum swing back.
“When we get a lead, we play more like ourselves. We don’t try to do anything out of our range,” Hellebuyck said.
The River Hawks controlled the puck and marched through the neutral zone with relative ease, something that Boston College attempted in vain last week.
So with a 2-0 lead in hand and Hellebuyck in net, it strangely felt like the game was getting out of hand after only 20 minutes.
Notre Dame’s puck possession game wasn’t materializing. Attempts to wedge Lowell to the perimeter were faltering.
And at that point, with a 2-0 lead in the early moments of the second period, the River Hawks took advantage of the opportunity: two power plays in the second period.
First, it was Evan Campbell pounding home a rebound spilled by Irish goalie Steven Summerhays after a hard shot from Scott Wilson in the right circle.
On the second power play, a shot-pass from Zack Kamrass was ticketed for the corner boards, not the back of the net. But as defenseman Stephen Johns lifted his stick to avoid an errant redirection, the puck caught the back of his skate and bounced through Summerhays’ five-hole.
A lucky bounce, but an earned one, to be sure. And a dagger.
“It really boiled down to puck decisions,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “A couple of them went off us — that happened early in the year, but that hasn’t happened over the last several weeks. They had traffic at the net, that’s what happens.”
“We were able to convert on two power plays, which was very, very important,” River Hawks forward Derek Arnold said. “They [Notre Dame] gave everything they could. They’re a great team, but we were able to combat them pretty well and just capitalize on the opportunities we had.”
Attacking with speed through the neutral zone allowed the River Hawks to control the puck. Converting on the power play allowed the River Hawks to build an insurmountable lead.
And then, Hellebuyck did the rest, stopping all 35 shots that came his way.
Though they’re all the same in the box score, not all shutouts are created equal, and for Hellebuyck’s record 11th to come in the penultimate game of the Hockey East tournament adds to a historic ledger.
But as Hellebuyck noted in his postgame news conference, much of the credit was due to the superb work from his teammates.