BOSTON — Connor Hellebuyck and his Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks wanted to play the game they knew they could during Friday afternoon’s Hockey East semifinal against Notre Dame.
“When we have a lead, we play like ourselves,” said the River Hawks’ sophomore goaltender. “We don’t do anything out of our range.”
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The River Hawks’ overwhelming defense and opportunistic special teams were major parts of the masterful win, as well as Hellebuyck’s 35 saves in his 11th collegiate shutout.
“We felt like the guys were on cue this morning in pregame skate, and they certainly were,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “I thought we were sharp and our special teams definitely capitalized.”
The River Hawks started the game intensely, setting the game’s pace from the opening faceoff. Notre Dame (23-14-2) found itself behind the tempo early.
“Against a team like that you can’t be sluggish through part of the game,” said Fighting Irish senior forward T.J. Tynan.
Lowell kept the pace quick and in its favor, which allowed it to strike first.
Halfway through the first period, Christian Folin’s hard shot bounced off the skate of Notre Dame defender Kevin Lind, who was busy tying up another River Hawks player in front of the net, and slid past Notre Dame goaltender Steven Summerhays. A.J. White and Joseph Pendenza were credited with the helpers.
Three and a half minutes later, Lowell created another opportunity. As Notre Dame attempted to get offensive pressure going in the Lowell zone, Zack Kamrass broke up a pass, feeding teammate Derek Arnold. Arnold streaked up the right wing, out-skating the man coverage of Notre Dame’s Eric Johnson, and shot on the right side of Summerhays to notch the River Hawks’ second goal of the first period.
“I picked up that puck from Zack, and we just went off to the races on a two-on-one,” said Arnold. “I saw a little daylight, so I went in.”
Notre Dame woke up as the first period drew to a close, but saw one of its best attempts fall flat.
With five seconds remaining in the first period, Bryan Rust slid the puck unchallenged to Tynan, who was parked right in front of the River Hawks’ goal. Tynan couldn’t get his stick on the puck and was turned away by Hellebuyck.
A boarding minor to Notre Dame’s David Gerths three minutes into the second period handed Lowell, the league’s leading man advantage team in the tournament, a prime opportunity.
Unfazed by steely defensive pressure by the Notre Dame penalty kill at the blue line, the River Hawks took their time to set up a shot by Scott Wilson that was initially saved, but Evan Campbell stuffed home the rebound to put them up 3-0.
The margin marked Lowell’s first three-goal lead since Feb. 8.
Lowell continued its power-play finesse as Notre Dame’s Eric Johnson went to the box after a hard open-ice hit. Kamrass edged his way through Fighting Irish defenders to cozy near the net and shoot.
At its release, his shot look destined for the stick of Josh Holmstrom, but deflected against the skate of Notre Dame’s Stephen Johns and bounced in, giving the River Hawks a 4-0 lead with seven minutes to go in the second.
Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson had seen his team allow deflected goals in the past, but thought they had put it behind them.
“That happened to us earlier in the year, but not in the past couple of weeks,” said Jackson. “When you get traffic in front of the net, that’s what happens.”
Notre Dame began to match Lowell’s pace of play in the third, but the River Hawks responded by dialing up their defense. Their sustained pressure covered the Fighting Irish’s every move, and Hellebuyck provided support in the crease, stopping 14 shots in the last frame to maintain the shutout win.
Jackson couldn’t immediately pinpoint what ailed his team, which had come into the championship weekend as one of Hockey East’s hottest teams.
“I don’t think we were as sharp as we have been,” he said. “Maybe the travel three of the four weeks caught up with us.”
Lowell earned its second straight trip to the championship game, where it will try win a second straight title. Arnold knows defending is a tall order.
“It’s even harder,” he said. “The first time is hard. The second time is even harder.”