WINNIPEG — On paper it looks like a real beauty, the type of game a coach would use to point to his team’s incredible depth, with seven different players scoring, their goals coming at five-on-five and on the power-play and even short-handed.
But the stats sheet sure was deceiving on Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg.
As defenceman Tyler Myers put it, just minutes after the Winnipeg Jets earned a 7-1 win over the visiting Philadelphia Flyers: “Honestly, that was pretty ugly from our group.”
It was, and Myers was specifically pointing to the first period. That’s why, in a game that saw seven different Jets score, when you’d think it would be the offensive fire that’d be the talk of the dressing room, instead it was Winnipeg’s 25-year-old goalie, Connor Hellebuyck — and rightly so.
“You know, it was an afternoon game, you gotta get your legs under you and obviously that wasn’t the first that we wanted,” said Mark Scheifele, who had three assists in the winning effort, following a 2 p.m. puck drop. “But Helly made a lot of big saves to keep us in it.”
That was the message over and over from the Jets on Sunday: Helly — (or Bucky, depending which teammate you ask — came up huge early, and he set the table for his team to explode offensively in the second and third.
Though it was 2-1 Winnipeg at the end of the first, the Jets had no business leading this game. The Flyers were all over Winnipeg, and had six shots on an early power-play, including three in quick succession that were all Grade A chances. Hellebuyck made a big-time save with his right pad — you could hear the thwack of the puck way up high at Bell MTS Place — and he robbed Wayne Simmonds in close and sprawled across the crease to shut down James van Riemsdyk on the doorstep, too.
“When they had their push, Helly made some big saves,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, before correcting himself: “Some huge saves actually, and kept us right there.”
Added Winnipeg’s head coach, Paul Maurice: “I mean I don’t know if you can count the five goals they would’ve got on one power play … He was really good.”
Hellebuyck is a fan of the afternoon games, and says something about the early start “suits me.” Seemingly he was the only Jet that felt that way. But once the rest of them woke up, the Jets couldn’t stop scoring.
Winnipeg got goals from Kyle Connor (he turned 22 today), Morrissey (he returned after two games on the shelf), Brandon Tanev (his fifth of the season), Dustin Byfuglien (he got a 10-minute misconduct for engaging in a scrap), Blake Wheeler (the captain scored short-handed), Bryan Little (his sixth of the season) and Myers (on a nice saucer pass from Patrik Laine, who had two helpers on Sunday to nearly double his total assists tally this season; he now has five).
Obviously goaltending wasn’t a bright spot for the Flyers. And in Winnipeg, the visitor’s bench is so small that the back-up goalie has to sit in a little box near the TV cameras at the other side of the ice, opposite the players’ bench. So when Flyers starter Michal Neuvirth was pulled after allowing three goals on 10 shots, he had to spend the rest of the game sitting alone in that far away seat while he watched Anthony Stolarz, who didn’t fare much better in the net. That couldn’t have been fun.
The Jets, on the other hand, are trending upward between the pipes. Hellebuyck has allowed just one goal in each of his last three starts, and Maurice says he “looks the way that we’re used to seeing.” In other words, more like the Vezina candidate of last year, who got off to a slower start this season, but who now sports a .910 save percentage.
Hellebuyck says he’s feeling a lot more comfortable in the crease these days.
“I think I was just gripping it a little too tight and trying to do too much with it instead of letting the game come to me,” he said, of earlier this season. “I was trying to do more and trying to go after it when really I just needed to relax and read the play.”
Though he called a few of his saves “lucky” on Sunday, Hellebuyck noticed his play helped turn the tide for the Jets.
“Any time you get an early big save like that you can kind of use that as momentum,” he said. “I think the team used it well.”
They did indeed, even if the 7-1 win was a little ugly.