WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes both made moves in the off-season in search of a No. 1 goaltender. The Hurricanes found theirs, while the Jets answer was seemingly right there all along.
Nikolaj Ehlers‘s team-leading fifth goal of the season was the winner and Connor Hellebuyck stopped 28 shots to win his third straight game as the Winnipeg Jets earned a 2-1 win over Carolina on Saturday at Bell MTS Place.
The Jets are 3-0 in games Hellebuyck starts after going 0-2 in front of Steve Mason, who was signed as a free agent in the off-season as the supposed answer to the Jets’ need for a veteran starter.
Yet it’s been Hellebuyck, the third-year pro who started 56 games last season, who has been the one to put his thumbs into the Jets’ leaky boat. Since giving up 13 goals in their first two games, the Jets (3-2-0) have allowed just five goals in the last three games.
“I’ve been working all summer for this,” Hellebuyck said. “You can see the guys blocking shots, working really hard, really grinding the other team down, keeping everything to the outside. I’ve been saying it the last three games and it’s been true every single game: I think the guys in front of me have been playing outstanding.”
“We just found a way to win a hockey game against a team that hadn’t lost a regulation game and had played solid hockey,” said Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice. “I’m not here trying to convince anybody that was well played. That game was going to be played like that, was going to look like that, with these two teams and the style of play.”
Ehlers’s goal was well timed for the Jets, who were in need of an offensive oasis after a second-period drought in which they mustered just four shots on goal.
Darling, making his first road start as the Hurricanes No. 1 goalie, made 19 saves.
Darling, acquired in a trade with Chicago in April, has started all three games for the Hurricanes instead of Cam Ward, the man who has been locked in as the top netminder for Carolina for the better part of the past 12 seasons.
“He gives us a chance every night,” said Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters. “There he is again tonight, two goals against. It’s a race to three in the National Hockey League. You’ve gotta be able to get to three to get a point, if not two points, and we didn’t do that here.”
Saturday marked the first time in three outings a Hurricanes game was decided in regulation. Carolina’s first two games each went to an extra period, with a season-opening shootout win over Minnesota being followed by an overtime loss Tuesday against Columbus.
Afterwards, Darling accepted the brunt of another one-goal loss.
“That’s my job is to stay ready the whole time,” he said. “Gotta make the saves. I gotta be sharper, battle through traffic and get used to those broken plays. That’s something you can’t recreate in the off-season, so it’s going to get better as the games go here.”
Ehlers also drew an assist on Bryan Little‘s first-period goal, his first of the season, that put Winnipeg up 1-0 13:33 into the game.
“It’s going the right way,” Ehlers said of his recent string of points. “I’m feeling good. I feel comfortable out there and I’m using my speed as much as I can. I’m playing with two great players and they’re making it easy for me.”
Jeff Skinner, playing in the 500th game of a career spent entirely with Carolina, scored a power-play goal to tie the game 1:45 after Little’s goal.
“I just think we need to be more hungry. Just more hunger and more desperation,” Skinner said. “It’s disappointing when that’s the reason because that’s in your control.”