Connor Hellebuyck still learning from the school of hard knocks

Reilly Smith scored the winner as the Vegas Golden Knights took a 3-1 series lead with a 3-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

LAS VEGAS — Hockey can be a harsh, unforgiving place — even more so at this time of year — and not just for the players and coaches.

Here in the back end of May, a young man can open up to a hockey writer with the utmost honesty, as Connor Hellebuyck did for this piece we wrote on Thursday. We are thankful to him for that, and frankly came to like the young man the more we understand and get to know him.

Then, a day later, that same writer can take a cold look at this series, and why the Winnipeg Jets are trailing 3-1, and come to this awkward conclusion:

Connor Hellebuyck.

The reason the Jets aren’t going home at 2-2 is their goalie. He hasn’t been good enough. Not only is that something we did not expect to write, it is (full disclosure) something we would rather not conclude.

But Marc-Andre Fleury is the better goaler in this series, by some margin, and in hockey history the team with the better goaltending wins, what, 95 per cent of all series? And then there are the goals, mistakes made by Hellebuyck in both Games 3 and 4. Back-breaking gaffes that allowed goals 12 and 43 seconds after the Jets had scored on Fleury.

They were crushing, momentum-killing goals in both instances, both in the moment and at the end of a pair of what were both essentially 3-2 hockey games.

It is Round 3. The margin for error is razor thin. Goals are hard-earned, and come at a premium, with only five per game getting scored, if you erase a Vegas empty-netter in Game 3.

“You’re looking at two players who have been spectacular for us to get us to the final of the conference,” said head coach Paul Maurice, on miscues by Dustin Byfuglien and Hellebuyck that cost the Jets goals. “We won’t talk about them (the goals). This will be the last time they’re talked about.”

Of the two goals that came immediately after the Jets had scored, Maurice admitted, “I didn’t like either of them.”

On Friday, just as he had done when he coughed up a puck behind his goal in Game 3, Hellebuyck gave the Golden Knights a freebie goal that they barely had to work for. He’s a fine young netminder who is up for a Vezina Trophy at age 24, but again in Game 4 he botched a routine shoot-in. The puck sat there for Pierre-Edouard Bellemaire, whose wrap-around ended up on Thomas Nosek’s stick for a goal.

So we asked a few of Jets this straight-forward question: “Is Fleury stealing this series?”

Here is what they said:

Blake Wheeler: “You can answer that question for yourself. He’s playing well … it’s a bad look to answer that question honestly.”

Nikolaj Ehlers: “He’s a good goalie. We’ve got a good goalie. There were some bounces today that could have gone our way, but sometimes it’s like that.”

Paul Maurice: “He’s certainly been really good and he’s made … probably three in each game that gives their crowd reason to get to their feet and rightfully so. They’re one-goal games so that feels like it’s the difference.”

Tyler Myers: “Nothing is stolen until it’s over. In our minds, this series is far from over. We’re going back home for the next one, and we’ll focus on that.”

Nobody in the Jets organization is going to stand up and say the obvious: “We can’t win if our goalie gives up a free one every night.” And there are skaters like Kyle Connor, who has goals in two of 16 games this spring, or Ehlers (zero goals) who also haven’t produced.

Asked about the state of his game, the supremely confident young goalie did not waiver. “I’ve liked it all series long. Obviously it’s got to be a little bit better because we’ve got to win, that’s the bottom line.”

Is it just a few bad bounces, he was asked?

“I see a lot of posts on the other end,” he said, a quote he probably will not offer up a few years from now. “I don’t know if I want to call it luck, but things have got to switch and it’s going to come our way.”

After Game 3, Hellebuyck had the temerity to say that he liked his game better than Fleury’s. The next day he doubled down on that quote.

“Oh yeah, I said that,” he said. “I say it how it is, and I take a positive outlook on everything.”

After Game 4, he was asked again about Fleury.

“I don’t want to answer any questions about him,” Hellebuyck said.

He is learning. This, for young Mr. Hellebuyck, is the school of hard knocks.


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