Connor Hellebuyck Cements Place Among Hockey East Elite As UMass Lowell Wins First Conference Title

Connor Hellebuyck, Jake Suter, Derek ArnoldBOSTON — In 2009, a freshman goalie named Kieran Millan tallied 32 saves in the Hockey East championship game to lead Boston University to a 1-0 win over UMass Lowell.

Four years later, a freshman again took over the conference title game at TD Garden. But this time, he was wearing red, white and blue.

In just his 21st collegiate game, Connor Hellebuyck etched his name in the River Hawks history books Saturday night, turning aside 36 shots in a 1-0 win that gave top-seeded Lowell its first Hockey East title in school history.

“He’s been phenomenal,” UML head coach Norm Bazin said of his young goalie. “You don’t win a championship without a great goalie, and [Saturday] I thought he was spectacular. He made key stops at key moments to keep the game tied. You can’t say enough about the kid. … He was the difference tonight.”

In four postseason games, Hellebuyck, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, has allowed just four total goals. He backstopped the River Hawks to a two-game sweep of Maine, then proceeded to play dominant hockey under the bright Garden lights, outdueling Providence’s own freshman phenom Jon Gillies in a 2-1 thriller in the semifinals before shutting out the high-powered Terriers offense to clinch the title.

BU goaltender Sean Maguire, yet another freshman, matched Hellebuyck save-for-save for much of Saturday’s contest as the teams remained locked in a scoreless tie deep into the third period. Both teams hit posts around the 10-minute mark of the final frame before junior Derek Arnold finally scored what proved to be the game-winner, wrapping the puck between Maguire’s left pad and the goal post after a 3-on-2 rush.

Maguire finished with 28 saves, bringing his tournament total to an astounding 141 over four games.

On a national scale, Lowell did not need this win. With a 25-10-2 record and a regular-season conference title, they were a lock for the NCAA tournament, and may have been a No. 1 seed even with a loss on Saturday. But for Bazin and his team, the win serves as validation that they have finally reached the pinnacle of arguably the nation’s best hockey conference after decades of futility.

“It was very important,” said Bazin, who played for UML when the River Hawks lost to BU in this very game in 1994. “I think there are a lot of skeptics out there and a lot of detractors that felt that we were going to come up short again. I was certainly reminded by our own press people how many times we’ve seemed to have lost the game in the finals. … It was fitting that we played BU tonight.”

Bazin’s 1994 squad came up one goal short against the Terriers. So did the 2009 team. This year was different.

“To be honest, no,” Arnold said when asked if he could have envisioned winning a conference title when he enrolled at Lowell three years ago. “Coming from New England, growing up seeing BC and BU win every year, you didn’t see Lowell in there too many times. But it’s amazing right now, a remarkable accomplishment by the group of guys in that room.”

A new power has risen in Hockey East, and it’s rather fitting that UMass Lowell’s coming-out party also marks the end of a terrific career for BU head coach Jack Parker. After a mid-season swoon in February, the Terriers will almost certainly not qualify for the national tournament, but Parker’s final game behind the bench was certainly not one that will soon be forgotten.

“I couldn’t ask for more of my team,” Parker said. “I couldn’t ask for a better weekend from us. We played really well, played really hard, and I think there are teams in the national tournament that aren’t as good as us, but the reason we aren’t [in] is because we had a dip in the middle and we never recovered.”

Millan’s 2009 Terriers will now go down as the final team to lift the Hockey East trophy under Parker. That squad went on to win the national title less than a month later. Those are some footsteps that Hellebuyck would love to follow in.

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