NCAA Hockey Tournament: Lowell is big, boring and bound for Frozen Four

In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament.

UMass Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so. He made 28 saves on Saturday in picking up his sixth shutout in half a season, and ran his goaltending stats to being the best in the country.

On the back of yet another stalwart performance, his River Hawks downed league rival UNH, 2-0, to advance to their first Frozen Four in school history.

He's obviously drawing a lot of praise for having a 1.31 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage in 23 appearances this season, and again, it's all due. In his last four starts, all of them knockout games against nationally-ranked opponents, he's allowed a whopping two goals 131 shots (a .985 save percentage). And really, he's made it all look easy. But that's the plan.

Hellebuyck often describes his own style, modeled a little bit after Olaf Kolzig's, as "big and boring." He's positionally sound, and a big boy at 6-foot-4, and consequently never has to make highlight-reel saves because everything hits him more or less where he wants it to. There nothing flashy about his game, but he's 20-2 on the season for the simple reason that it's all pretty much excellent.

But what doesn't get talked about so much when everyone gushes over Hellebuyck is the total commitment to team defense exhibited by the River Hawks, and the way in which coach Norm Bazin, who played for the team in the early 90s alongside Dwayne Roloson, significantly revamped his team's approach after it won 24 games and was within a game of the Frozen Four last year.

The coaching audacity it must take to turn over half your defense after allowing just 94 goals in 38 games a season ago is impressive, but Bazin saw that Lowell was often pushed around by other, bigger teams (see the loss to Union in the Elite Eight last year), and he set out to add size to his blue line. Enter Christian Folin (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), Gregory Amlong (6-2, 200), and Joe Houk (6 feet, 204), the former two freshmen, and the latter a junior transfer from Div. 3 Hamilton College. With those three joining Chad Ruhwedel — the best defenseman in Hockey East — as well as Jake Suter, and Zack Kamrass, all have combined to cut Lowell's goals against to just 80 in 40 at this point. And how they do it is impressive.

Everything is from the perimeter, and that certainly helps to give Hellebuyck time to get exactly where he needs to be. UNH, which came in averaging just about 34 shots a night, was held to 28 because there's always someone back; and they're always forcing rushing forwards to the boards and behind the net. Ruhwedel in particular is excellent at this, but there were points in the game where the Wildcats — albeit missing two of their best forwards due to injuries sustained during the previous night's game against Denver — were very clearly frustrated with what Lowell was presenting them. When multiple odd-man rushes, including a 4-on-2 resulted in medium-power shots from the blue line that Hellebuyck turned aside with ease, you knew everyone was doing their job.

That includes the forwards, almost all of whom are excellent at both ends of the ice, by necessity. Penguins seventh-rounder Scott Wilson, who scored Lowell's first goal with just 30 seconds remaining in the second period to break what had been, to that point, a bit of an anxious deadlock, now has 75 points in 77 career games, but has been counted on to kill penalties almost since he arrived on campus. Junior Joe Pendenza is still the team's most dynamic two-way player, but that's not to discount the work of Riley Wetmore, Derek Arnold, or Josh Holmstrom, all of whom are headed to Pittsburgh with double-digit goal totals.

And what makes it all work so well is that it's the commitment to team defense that powers the team's 20th-in-the-nation offense. Case in point: Freshman Adam Chapie's goal at 13:58 of the third period to salt the game away and all but assure a Lowell victory; teams haven't been able to score two in a game on Lowell for a while now, let alone do it in the final six minutes.

With the Wildcats pressing hard but not getting much toward Hellebuyck that would have had him sweating, Lowell created another defensive-zone turnover, and Wilson chipped it ahead to Chapie, who broke in one-on-one and drove toward the net, squeezing a backhander between UNH goalie Casey DeSmith and the post he really should have been up against. This is the kind of goal Lowell has scored pretty much constantly since it started playing well in December.

The River Hawks now have 28 wins this year, the most in the school's Div. 1 history, and are unarguably the hottest team in the country having taken down 24 of their last 28 opponents.

And they're going to the Frozen Four because of Hellebuyck, yes, but also because they've been programmed to make that goaltender's job as easy as possible.

The formula is more or less down pat: Wait for the other team to make a mistake, make none yourself. And it hasn't stopped working yet.

Yale 4, North Dakota 1

And with this win, Yale punched its own ticket to Pittsburgh, humiliating another favored WCHA team in the process, but things could have gone very wrong for the Bulldogs very early.

North Dakota scored what appeared to be a very early goal just 2:31 into the game, but after a lengthy review it was adjudged to have come after NoDak forward Jeff Rodwell made contact with Yale netminder Jeff Malcolm. Normally that kind of thing would buoy the beneficiary's offensive hopes, but in this case, it only emboldened the victims, who scored again, for real this time, when Corban Knight scored at 7:22, and time began to seriously pass.

Little of note happened for the remainder of the first period and the entirety of the second, except to say that Yale seemed to have North Dakota on its heels for most of that time. The former Sioux didn't break a double-digit shot total in any period. Then the Bulldogs finally broke through midway through the third, and when they did, North Dakota could only watch in abject horror at what happened next.

Josh Balch scored at 12:25. Then Jesse Root scored at 15:04. Then Stu Wilson scored at 17:39. Then Kenny Agostino scored into an empty net at 19:01. Four goals in a little more than six and a half minutes, and just like that Yale was through to its first Frozen Four in 61 years.

This was, all things considered, a very good weekend for Yale (obviously) and a very bad one for their WCHA-based opponents. The one had a lot to do with the other.

St. Cloud State 5, Notre Dame 1

Finally, a WCHA team that makes a good accounting of itself, as the Huskies just pummeled top-seeded Notre Dame in what was, in all honesty and despite the scoreline, a bit of a defensive battle.

The teams combined for just 41 shots, and the Irish had but 18 of them. Only three came in the second period. Only five in the third. Just stifling stuff from the Huskies, who never trailed and never even had the come close to being interesting. Ben Hanowski scored his second goal of the weekend just 11:32 into the game, then a second-period outburst that led to three goals in five and a half minutes put Notre Dame to bed nice and early, without supper.

After Mike Voran cut it to 4-1, Joey Benik answered back not long after with his second of the game, giving him a three-point night and the easy vote for first star of the game.

Poor Steven Summerhays gave up four goals on 14 shots before getting the hook after the second period, while at the other end Ryan Farragher conceded one on those 18. I didn't actually get to see this game, but I hope he brought a Sudoku puzzle or something to keep himself occupied.

Miami 4, Minnesota State 0

This is just another reminder that the WCHA sent six teams to the NCAA tournament and all but St. Cloud played their worst games in the last few weeks at least on the big stage.

Despite getting just one power play in the game (albeit a major), the RedHawks controlled things somewhat effectively throughout, allowing their opponents to pile up just 20 shots in 60 minutes, which by my count is not a lot. Both Max Cook and Cody Murphy had a goal and an assist for Miami, and both Austin Czarnik and Blake Coleman had a pair of helpers, and that was plenty for everyone.

Ryan McKay picked up the shutout, but when you only have to make four saves in the final period, it kind of feels like that shouldn't count the same.

Quinnipiac 4, Canisius 3

This was a crazy game. At one point, Canisius, a team that barely finished above .500 in the worst conference in the nation, was up two goals on the No. 1 team in the country. In the third period.

The Q has had a penchant for not exactly showing up against some of the worse opponents on the schedule, and certainly this one would qualify as being along those lines. Even as Canisius netminder Tony Capobianco stood on his head through the first two periods, allowing just one goal on 23 shots, and then his Golden Griffins extended their lead to 3-1 just 3:43 in on a hard-working unassisted goal from Kyle Gibbons.

Then it seemed like both teams remembered where they were seeded, and how their seasons went. The Bobcats scored three times in 6:26 with goals from Matthew Peca, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, and Kevin Bui to turn a two-goal deficit into a one-goal lead. Capobianco had been standing on his head all day, but the winner from Bui was a very generous gift for a job well done in the third.

This was, somewhat surprisingly, Quinnipiac's first-ever tournament win.

Union 5, Boston College 1

Second bad night at the office in a row for BC netminder Parker Milner, while his counterpart at the other end of the ice, Troy Grosenick, put on an excellent display. And that was the difference.

Milner, fresh off giving up six to BU in the Hockey East semifinals eight days ago, conceded five on 35, and did not look in any way good doing it. Admittedly, this is a very different, rather inexperienced team BC team than the one that won the national championship, but they just looked lost today. That one goal of theirs came when the game was already 5-0, and with just under four minutes left.

It could have gone differently, but for BC staying in the dressing room to start the second period, as Union put two past Milner in just 1:04 to stretch their lead to three. There was no coming back from that. Not against Grosenick, and not against Union's defense.

With the BC loss, we are now assured a first-ever NCAA champion in two weeks, as none of Lowell, Yale, Miami, Quinnipiac, Union or St. Cloud have ever won.

Three stars

1. Joey Benik, St. Cloud State

No one in any game had more points today than Benik, and the first two were extremely important. The first was the game-winning goal, on the power play, at 9:28 of the second period, and the second was an assist on the extra insurance goal to make it 3-0. He struck again on the power play to finalize the scoring. What's really incredible about the performance, though, is that the freshman had three points today after piling up just six in his first 21.

2. Josh Jorris, Union

Jooris likewise had two goals, and they were likewise important in giving his team the edge in a game against a favored, more experienced opponent. He drew first blood against BC in the opening period, then scored Union's second just 39 seconds after the first intermission.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, UMass Lowell

Another 28 saves in a shutout win isn't all that bad for the Jets draft pick, and his having conceded one goal on 60 shots over the two games this weekend was enough to earn him Regional MVP honors.

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