The other guy: In loss, Minnesota State’s Huggins does his best to match Hellebuyck

Cole Huggins made 34 saves in the Minnesota State net (photo: Melissa Wade).

WORCESTER, Mass. — At the other end of the ice, Connor Hellebuyck sent Massachusetts-Lowell to a Northeast Regional final appearance against Boston College, standing on his head and coming within 10 seconds of recording his third straight shutout.

At the Minnesota State end of the ice, Cole Huggins also stood on his head and came within a breakaway goal of also recording a shutout. He stopped 34 of 35 shots, but even though the Mavericks scored a six-on-four goal with 10 seconds remaining, they’d already given up an empty netter. For them the season ended.

So close but yet so far.

Including the breakaway goal, Huggins allowed only two goals over the past three games, the biggest of his career and of the Mavericks’ season.

If only … if only … if only …

But alas, at 12:54 of the first period, Joseph Pendenza forced a turnover at the offensive blue line, raced off on a short-handed breakaway, faked and beat Huggins five-hole.

“I’ve had problems with the five-hole all year,” the self-effacing freshman said after the tough loss. “The guys score there on me all the time.”

Hellebuyck became a nationally recognized figure last year, backstopping Lowell to its first Hockey East regular season title, tournament championship and Frozen Four appearance. His numbers — an ungodly 1.37 GAA and a .952 save percentage — caught everyone’s attention. This year he earned first-team All-Hockey East honors with stats of 1.71 and .944.

Hellebuyck’s stature was such that he didn’t even need to be mentioned by name in Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings’ opening remarks in the postgame news conference.

“We knew he was going to be good and he was good,” Hastings said without any prompting. “We had some second and third opportunities that he did a good job of keeping out of the net.”

Professional stars often need only one name to be identified. Pele. Magic. LeBron. Hellebuyck needed none at all.

Huggins, by contrast, was a freshman who didn’t seize total control of the Mavericks’ starting job until January. After that, he emerged and was even named second-team All-WCHA behind Ferris State Hobey Baker Award finalist CJ Motte. A great freshman season by any measure.

But second fiddle to Motte in a league stripped of much of its luster after its most prestigious schools left for greener pastures.

In other words, The Other Guy.

And yet, he keyed Minnesota State’s stretch run of a 12-0-1 record entering the NCAA tournament. During that time, he produced a Hellebuyckian .946 save percentage. Over the last nine games, he recorded four shutouts. As Hellebuyck did in Hockey East, Huggins earned WCHA tournament MVP honors.

The Other Guy? Really?

“It’s hard to step in as a freshman and do what he’s done, but his mentality has helped him,” Zach Stepan said. “He’s such a calm kid. Knowing how calm he is and how mentally strong he is back there helps us be a more aggressive team, knowing that we’ve got him to back us up. He’s probably the biggest reason why we’ve come to where we are.”

The Other Guy?

For anyone who saw him go toe-to-toe Saturday evening with Hellebuyck (the guy who needs no name) … for anyone who saw Huggins stop 34 of 35 shots to continue a stretch of excellence dating to Feb. 1 … Cole Huggins will from this point on be considered anything but …

The Other Guy.