ST. PAUL, Minn. – Game 4 of this playoff series was over, and the Winnipeg Jets had their opponent down on the mat.
Whatever happened in goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s post-game media, he knew that giving the Wild something to put up their dressing room wall was the one thing to avoid. Even if he had pitched a shutout and been named a Vezina finalist in the same day.
“I’m trying to underplay it right now,” he finally said to the gathered media. “You’ve got to let me.”
Sorry, kid. We’ve got deadlines.
So the questions kept coming.
About a little boy who dreamed of a day like this, growing up in the Detroit suburb of Commerce, Mich., cheering on the Red Wings and guys like Curtis Joseph, Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood.
About a 24-year-old playoff rookie who had let in six and been pulled after 40 minutes in Game 3, then returned to the nets two nights later and been perfect.
About maybe, just maybe, having his name on the historic Vezina Trophy this spring among, perhaps, other hardware.
“It definitely added a little more hop to my step,” he said of the nomination, alongside Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. “It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to it, but I have to dial it back in. We’re here to do a job. We’re here to win a Stanley Cup. I have to worry about that first.”
Hellebuyck was one save better than Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk in Game 4, allowing Winnipeg to ride Mark Scheifele’s first period goal all the way to a late empty-netter (also Scheifele) that sealed the deal. A 2-0 road win puts the Jets in the driver’s seat, and now they’re heading home with a 3-1 series lead.
“We didn’t learn anything about him,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of his goalie. The point being, every member of this club knew Hellebuyck would go unaffected by getting the hook in Game 4.
“You knew, five to 10 minutes into that game, he was right and feeling good. It’s really good for our hockey team to see that from him,” Maurice said. “To see that he can come back and rebound – those kind of confidence builders in the playoffs are critical.”
Tuesday marked a major swing day in this series with Parise’s exit, the Wild losing in regulation at home for only the seventh time all season and the Jets regaining the territorial advantage they’d lost in Game 3. Hellebuyck will have far tougher shutouts than this, though he made a couple of fabulous stops, the kind that make the difference between a punctual flight home Tuesday evening and an overtime that could have ended who knows how?
This kid? He’s all goalie, and good goalies are all about recovery from tough nights and rough goals. That is, if you consider a shutout after being pulled a decent recovery.
“It might be textbook, I don’t know,” he joked. “You can read hockey books and it might say, ‘Shutout after pull.’ I don’t know.”
“That’s the dream,” said Joe Morrow, just one more piece of this patchwork blue line corps that has been slapped together in front of Hellebuyck. “It’s what you train yourself to do. To be able to have that attitude where … tomorrow is a new day. You wake up, you’re a whole new person and you’re ready to play again.”
Hellebuyck, referred to as “Bucky” by his teammates, has the qualities that teammates love in their netminders. He worries only about the next shot — never the last one — and he absolutely never shows his defencemen up when a puck sneaks past.
“If a goalie takes onus on every single shot, every single goal. That’s a guy you’ll do that little extra for,” Morrow said. “Bucky is one of those guys, even if you screen him and you say, ‘Hey, sorry buddy.’ He’ll say, ‘Just take a step to the left. We’re all good.’ There’s nothing to it.”
He’s a small-scale version of the Jets as a whole. Hellebuyck’s sloppy game last season that has taken on the detail and consistency required to win.
“I don’t think I pulled him this year, and I certainly got my fill of it the year before,” said Maurice. “He got pulled an awful lot, and that was all part of that process in the year, learning how to handle those things.
“Good for him.”
No, good for the Jets.
And for the Wild? Not so good, we’d say.