WINNIPEG — Connor Hellebuyck was hours away from giving up five goals on 15 shots when Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice considered the position his young goaltender was in as his team fights for its playoff life.
“You’re in a Canadian market and you’re playing goal,” Maurice said ahead of a 7-4 drubbing at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday. “Your options are stellar or in trouble.”
Well, Hellebuyck has been a bit of both.
The 23-year-old from Michigan has started 12 straight games for the Jets, and in the month of March alone, we’ve seen the guy they call “Helly” post a shutout, come seconds away from another, and, most recently, get the hook.
As Maurice put it, “he’s had his ups and downs.”
Such has been the case in the Jets’ crease for much of this season. Hellebuyck has shown himself to be the best option available, with 22 wins in 48 starts, a 2.83 GAA, and four shutouts. He’s also failed to finish seven games he’s started.
Backup Michael Hutchinson is 4-11 with a 3.24 GAA, and veteran Ondrej Pavelec, who’s likely done for the season following recent knee surgery, was only called up in January after Hellebuyck had a couple nightmarish starts. Pavelec’s 4-4 record with a 3.55 GAA and .888 save percentage didn’t exactly win him the starting role back, anyway.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the offensively gifted Jets are going to have even a shot at making the playoffs—a possibility that keeps slipping further out of grasp—they need either Hellebuyck or Hutchinson to catch fire.
Winnipeg sits five points back of that second wild-card spot in the West, occupied by the St. Louis Blues, who also have three games in hand. The Blues also close out the season with a sweetheart schedule, with three more games against each of the NHL-worst Colorado Avalanche, who’ve yet to hit the 20-win mark, and the Arizona Coyotes, who aren’t faring much better.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, faces a schedule heavy on playoff-bound teams, including a visit on Saturday from the red-hot Calgary Flames, who are fresh off their eighth straight win.
If Winnipeg’s head-to-head match-up early next month against St. Louis is going to be meaningful that means Hellebuyck is going to have to play more like the guy who came seconds away from back-to-back shutouts last week, and less like the one who got shelled by Pittsburgh on Wednesday. (To be fair, they’re the offensive juggernaut in the NHL, and no team has scored more than the Penguins this season.)
On this second-youngest team in the NHL—so young that 18-year-old Patrik Laine says, “I feel young, obviously, because I am young, but it’s not like everybody else is so old”—no player is more integral to the Jets’ fate right now than the young guy in the crease.
“Goaltending is a tough place to be a young player,” Maurice says. “We’ve had every one of our other young guys quietly having tough nights, tough weekends. The difference is when Connor has a tough night, it’s on the scoreboard.”
That’s why Pavelec got called up in January. Hellebuyck was pulled in back-to-back starts, and surrendered six goals on 13 shots.
But Hellebuyck is also tied for 10th in the league for shutouts, and when the Jets needed him to be at his very best in a matchup against the Blues earlier this month, he was perfect, making 29 saves.
Before the Penguins came to town on Wednesday, Hellebuyck had stopped 78 of 81 shots in his last three games, and posted a .963 save percentage.
“In the last week, when we’ve needed him to be at his best, he’s been very, very good,” Maurice said.
“Helly’s been awesome,” added rookie defenceman Josh Morrissey in advance of that meeting with Pittsburgh. “This time of year, it comes down to the smallest little things, and everybody’s fighting, everybody’s ramping up. He’s been big for us, and it’s been a huge help.”
Helleubuyck, who split time between the Jets and the AHL’s Moose last season, has now played in 74 career NHL games, nearly equal to a full season. Morrissey says the goaltender seems pretty relaxed these days, despite the high stakes.
“Helly’s a pretty loose guy. He’s focused, he’s always preparing, but I’ve played with goalies that you stay away from them on game day,” Morrissey said. “Helly’s not like that.”
It does seem pretty relaxed among the Jets these days. On an off day, when Laine sits down for an interview and pauses before he answers a question, Hutchinson fills the silence with a suggestion he offers up from across the room: “Hutch made me a better player,” the goalie emphatically says.
Laine grins: “Yeah, he’s been helping me a lot,” he says of Hutchinson. “He’s been giving me confidence, ‘cause he can’t take my shots.”
When it comes to offence, (though not on the power play, which has been anemic of late) the Jets should have loads of confidence. They’re the only team in the league with four players (Laine, Mark Schiefele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers) among the top 30 in league scoring.
They’re also 17-3-3 in games that Laine scores a goal—“That’s a good record,” as Laine points out.
Only five teams have put more pucks in the net this season than the Jets, teams like the Blue Jackets, Capitals and Penguins, who all have 90 points or more, compared to Winnipeg’s 66.
If the Jets don’t advance to the post-season for the second time in version 2.0 of their history goaltending will be the giant red flag. Only one team has given up more goals in the NHL this season, and it’s the woeful Avalanche.
“We can put the puck in the net,” says Wheeler, the team’s captain. “[Goaltending] is the great equalizer, you know what I mean?
“You get that area going good, you have a chance to win every night.”
And that’s what it’ll take—and maybe even a little more—to keep this season alive.