Why Connor Hellebuyck is Winnipeg’s X-Factor in push for playoff spot

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was happy with his overall attempt at the goalie goal, but says even if Bo Horvat didn’t knock it down, he doesn’t think he had enough power to get it there.

You won’t find anyone willing to blame Connor Hellebuyck for a loss like the one the Jets suffered January 12, a 1-0 defeat to the Nashville Predators. Unless, of course, you ask Hellebuyck himself.

“I think last game I was good. Not good enough,” he said.

Hellebuyck is one of those athletes who’s satisfied with nothing less than perfection. And don’t give him that stuff about his team needing to score more to help him win games.

“We win games where I’m not perfect,” he noted.

Though not perfect, Hellebuyck is intent on chasing that impossible goal. And the results show it. He is a darling of the analytics community.

Back in December, statistician Sean Tierney tweeted Hellebuyck was the “lone reason” the Jets were enjoying positive results in the standings. Hellebuyck had seen the same tweet. While flattered, he took exception to the suggestion.

“The guys in front of me are making my life less stressful,” he said. “Even though it’s a really good chance I completely trust that they’re covering the back door to the best of my ability.”

That give and take relationship may explain Hellebuyck’s success this season despite a bombardment of high quality chances. Yes, the Jets give opponents a lot of premium scoring attempts — more than any team besides Chicago and the Rangers — but both he a backup Laurent Brossoit say they can confidently turn their full focus to the shooter and trust teammates will take away the pass.

That faith goes both ways.

“Let’s say they trust me. That they know I’m going to stop it,” Hellebuyck said. “That’s the chemistry part of goaltending and defencemen. We kind of had to build that at the beginning of the year. Guys want to know what they’re expected to do and I want to know what’s expected of me.”

The fact of the matter is the Jets are expecting a lot from Hellebuyck. And the idea their season rests on his shoulders isn’t a stretch. The Jets cruised through most of December as Hellebuyck’s save percentage surged to .947. But when he stumbled in mid-December, posting an .887 save percentage over his last eight games of the month, the Jets looked like a team without answers. The losses piled up and their comfortable spot in a playoff position evaporated, leaving them where they are now: riding the playoff bubble.

Fortunately for the Jets, Hellebuyck has reawakened of late, allowing just six goals over his past four games and posting a .951 save percentage. In Hellebuyck’s mind, there’s a clear reason for the turnaround.

“It all started in practice. I’ve been battling hard and trying to identify what is going wrong and how to make it better,” he said following his shutout Tuesday over the Vancouver Canucks. “I got back to my practice habits. I didn’t even realize they were kind of slipping on me. It’s such a small difference. It’s just me battling in practice everyday.

Jets coach Paul Maurice sees it as a lesson in stardom. The kind of realization that hits players on their way to the next level.

“I thought he pushed real hard in his last couple practices,” the coach said. “We went real short but he wasn’t fooling around. He was really working at it. And that’s just maturity, awareness of what a great player needs to stay great.”

For the Jets’ sake, it’s a lesson they are hoping their star goalie has locked down. Because Hellebuyck staying great is the surest, and maybe only path to the post season.

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