Team defensive effort puts Massachusetts-Lowell within a win of Frozen Four

The best team in college hockey since Christmas has been Massachusetts-Lowell — 21-3-1 over that time — and its convincing 6-1 win over Wisconsin in Friday’s first round of the NCAA tournament displayed just why.

Simply put, the River Hawks have become one of the top defensive teams in the country. As good as they were in January and early February, they’ve become even more exceptional over the last 12 games, during which they’ve allowed only 13 goals while playing against the best of Hockey East. Over those dozen contests, freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck tossed three shutouts and allowed only a single goal six times.

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To put it a nutshell, if you surrender two or more goals to the River Hawks, you’re almost always going to lose.

So it went for Wisconsin. The River Hawks scored at 7:11 of the first period, putting the Badgers immediately into the danger zone.

A subsequent penalty shot, however, gave them a chance to even the score. Jefferson Dahl moved in slightly left of center and Hellebuyck, who has lost only a single game since his collegiate debut, stoned the junior.

“I took away the angle and made him do something,” the soft-spoke Hellebuyck said. “I tried a waiting game and I guess I outwaited him.”

The huge stop showcased the goaltender in a microcosm. The 6-foot-4 freshman doesn’t rely on flopping around on the ice like a fish out of water; rather, he uses his size to take away so much of the net that his netminding often looks effortless.

Effortless or not, it sure is effective. His goals against average (1.37) and save percentage (.950) both lead the country.

“He’s been playing unbelievable for us,” Scott Wilson said. “He’s been our rock back there.”

But while a goaltender is the most visible member of a team defense, it doesn’t end there. And that’s where Lowell has gotten better and better, to the point where Wisconsin’s power-play goal eight minutes into the third period represented the first allowed by Lowell in 159 minutes, 20 seconds.

“They do a terrific job of collapsing down in their own zone,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “They get five guys down around the dots. They do a good job of fronting, getting in front of your guys and blocking shots.”

Eaves then went on to liken Lowell’s defense to that of Boston College, a team that prior to this year led Hockey East three straight seasons in team defense, a major component to winning three national championships in five years.

But that defensive prowess isn’t based on the defensemen, according to Lowell coach Norm Bazin.

“The forwards drive the bus,” he said. “when their back pressure is strong, we’re very good defensively. When their back pressure isn’t as strong, we’re not as good.

“It’s a buy-in factor. The guys are truly believing that they can help out every single shift.

“The goaltending is a big piece of that. Hellebuyck has been very, very strong for the second half of the season, but it’s a team effort.

“We don’t go very far when we’re not aggressive, but when we’re aggressive on the puck, we’re a good hockey club.”

Good? A record of 21-3-1 argues for better than that. The question is how good? National champions good?

“They play hard, they play as a team, and they know what it takes to win,” Wisconsin defenseman John Ramage said. “Look at their record.

“They know how to win and they showed it. The better team won.”

In past weeks, Lowell earned its first regular season Hockey East crown in school history, then followed that with its first-ever league tournament title.

It now stands one game away from the school’s first trip to a Frozen Four, thanks largely to a defense that may now be second to none.