At the beginning of this season, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck admitted he wasn't sure what to expect.
Hellebuyck was joining Massachusetts Lowell as a freshman, after having played a year ago in Odessa, Texas, in the North American Hockey League. This Commerce, Mich., native was a fifth-round selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, going to Winnipeg, but figured he would have to wait his turn joining a team that was one win away from the Frozen Four a year ago.
Goalie Doug Carr was returning as a junior after posting a 22-10-1 record and 2.13 goals-against average in the 2011-12 season.
"I knew I was going to get a game here and there," Hellebuyck said. "I knew I needed to prove myself, I knew the development curve I needed to get on. I knew this was the perfect place to jump on that."
One game turned into two, then three, and by the middle of February, Hellebuyck, in his first season in college hockey, had seized the River Hawks' starting spot in net.
It wasn't always easy. In Hellebuyck's second career start, he gave up five goals in a 5-1 loss Oct. 19 to Denver. Since then, though, he has given up more than two goals only twice in 21 games.
"We've got a great coaching staff here and they've really been helping me along the way," Hellebuyck said. "I guess it was just a belief that the process would take care of itself."
Hellebuyck leads Division I in goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.953) and shutouts (6).
He turned up his game in the playoffs, leading the River Hawks to a Hockey East crown capped off with a virtuoso performance in a 1-0 win against Boston University in the conference championship.
"That game was great, such a huge game," he said. "BU played great, and the guys in front of me played outstanding. They blocked a ton of shots and really paid the price."
Hellebuyck, always quick to deflect praise to his teammates, followed that up with two strong performances in an NCAA regional, and now the River Hawks are at Consol Energy Center.
"He's very calm back there," junior forward Josh Holmstrom said. "I don't think he's playing like a freshman right now. He's very calm in his demeanor. He doesn't let too many things get to him."
Hellebuyck will face his biggest test in the Frozen Four. The River Hawks will play Yale Thursday in the semifinals. Yale arguably is the hottest team in the tournament after back-to-back wins against perennial powers Minnesota and North Dakota in a regional.
The Bulldogs barely got into the NCAA tournament field, needing Michigan to fall in its conference title game to open up another at-large spot, but have made the most of their opportunity.
"I don't feel like we got a second chance," Yale junior Andrew Miller said. "The body of work we did in the regular season puts us in a position to play in the tournament. But after a poor weekend in [our conference tournament in] Atlantic City, we didn't want it to be the way that Michigan had to lose to get in. But we were happy to get in. And we came ready to play last weekend."
Bulldogs coach Keith Allain said there wasn't any secret formula to his team's tournament success, just hard work and cohesive play. Which is something he sees plenty of in his opponent.
"A couple of things that really stand out [about Massachusetts Lowell] are the team defensive play and the pace they play at," Allain said. "And they're also a team we think, like us, that competes very, very hard."
Of course, it doesn't hurt the River Hawks to have 6-foot-4 Hellebuyck backstopping the defense.
Even for a freshman, the Frozen Four can present a whole new stage.
For Hellebuyck, that's a welcome part of the challenge.
"I'm looking forward to just experiencing it," he said. "... It's going to be really good hockey."frozenfour
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.