EDMONTON — Connor Hellebuyck came short of offering up a full-fledged guarantee, though he made a bold proclamation on a night the Winnipeg Jets were pushed to the brink of elimination.
Goaltending was supposed to be the one area the Jets had a decisive advantage in this best-of-five series with the Calgary Flames, with Hellebuyck a Vezina Trophy finalist and the backbone of his team all season long.
Although it’s impossible to ignore the circumstances the Jets are facing in playing without two of its top-four point getters and another important checker, to this point Hellebuyck has been the second-best goalie in this series to Cam Talbot.
That was unexpected and doesn’t sit well with Hellebuyck, whose determination to constantly push to be the best goalie in the NHL is not a new development.
One thing Hellebuyck has going for him is that he’s been a master of bouncing back from defeats and subpar efforts throughout the course of his young career.
That’s something he plans to lean heavily on Thursday when the Jets try to keep this intrigue-filled season alive.
“It’s going to be everything for me. I’ve got to use this and I plan on using this,” said Hellebuyck, who gave up five goals on 31 shots on Tuesday. “This was an upset for me. I don’t see it being easy for them at all for the rest of the series. So they better scratch and claw for everything that they get.”
Hellebuyck was the clear-cut Most Valuable Player for the Jets and garnered votes in the Hart Trophy voting this season for good reason.
But he’s sporting a 3.38 goals-against average and .894 save percentage through three games and it’s been written countless times that the Jets can’t survive with adequate goaltending.
Hellebuyck needs to be elite. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.
In Tuesday’s game, Hellebuyck didn’t give up any softies, though a puckhandling miscue behind the net early in the second period helped the Flames take a lead they would never relinquish.
Hellebuyck took responsibility for the error and was quick to put it wasn’t a matter of miscommunication between he and defenceman Neal Pionk that led to the goal from Mikael Backlund.
“I think the puck just bounced off the back of my heel,” said Hellebuyck. “There was good communication and I made a mistake. And I paid for it.
“So it doesn’t really matter if I make 10 mistakes or one mistake, we lost the game and I’ve got to prepare for the next one and we need to win.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice isn’t the least bit concerned about his goalie going into the most important game of the season for his group. And for good reason.
He’s seen Hellebuyck rise to the occasion countless times and that’s precisely what he’s expecting in Game 4.
“He’s going to want all of them back,” said Maurice, referring to the five goals against. “He’d probably say he should have had the empty-net goal too. That’s the way he is. He made saves early in that game. It just wasn’t their best offence that beat him.”
Playing without the likes of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton would be a blow for any team to handle.
But while Andrew Copp (two goals, including a slick power play marker on Tuesday) and Adam Lowry (one goal, three points) have found the back of the net, top guns Kyle Connor (one assist) and captain Blake Wheeler (one assist) are still looking for their first goal of the series.
Wheeler and Connor are front-line players and while they contribute in other areas, they need to get going offensively if the Jets are going to keep their season alive.
“There’s no question that Kyle and I carry the offensive burden and it’s a part of our job to produce, especially in these situations,” said Wheeler. “There’s no sidestepping that, that’s what we’re out here to do. There’s a lot more to the game than just that. Everything else is right there.
“It’s not something that I’m worrying about. We’re talking about guys that are predominantly point-a-game players. Both the last few seasons and the last few post-seasons. There’s no panic. There’s no worry. If we’re worried about offence, that’s a good thing. Because that’s the last thing we should be worrying about.”
Nobody is questioning the effort, though the fact remains the Jets now have a razor-thin margin for error or their adversity plagued season is going to end far earlier than they’d like it to.
As has been the case for a good chunk of this series, the Jets ran into some penalty trouble and a leaky penalty kill allowed the Flames to score three more goals with the man-advantage in what turned out to be a 6-2 victory on Tuesday at Rogers Place.
Calgary also got even-strength goals from Mikael Backlund, Milan Lucic and Matthew Tkachuk, his first of the series where he’s been noticeable in plenty of other areas.
The Jets have given up five power-play goals and a shorthanded marker, while scoring just twice with the man-advantage (the game-winner on Monday and the second goal on Tuesday).
The poor play on special teams is an issue that must be corrected.
On the injury front, the hits just kept coming for the Jets.
Already missing Scheifele (leg/ankle), Laine (hand/wrist) and Appleton (unknown) for a second straight game, the Jets lost Mathieu Perreault to what looked like a knee injury after he was hit by Flames forward Sam Bennett.
If none of the injured forwards are expected to return, the Jets will turn to either veteran Mark Letestu or rookie David Gustafsson for Game 4 on Thursday.
Jets defenceman Tucker Poolman appeared to be done for the night after blocking a shot with his face from Mikael Backlund in the second period, as he was taken immediately down the tunnel and left a large pool of blood behind as he left the ice.
But Poolman somehow returned to action for the third period and finished the game, alternating between wearing a full mask and full face shield.
That show of courage is something the Jets hope to lean on as they work to try and get the series back on even terms.
“We’re not coming to the rink for Game 4 with a feeling that we’ve let something slip away,” said Maurice. “We’ve been fighting and trying. It hasn’t been easy for us, we’re not moving the puck the way we’d like to, for sure. But if there’s one thing I have confidence in, I think the compete is going to be as good as we’ve got. What they leave on the ice in Game 4 will be all they have.”
The mentality required for the Jets is simple. Now it’s a matter of seeing whether or not they’re going to be able to deliver.
“We’re in the same situation we were in a couple of days ago,” said Wheeler. “We just need to win one hockey game, that’s it.”