EDMONTON — You can be sure that Connor Hellebuyck likes his game, even if he hasn’t publicly uttered one of his signature phrases just yet.
When the lights are shining brightest, Hellebuyck doesn’t direct his gaze away from the glare.
He looks squarely into the camera, with an abundance of intensity oozing out of his pores.
In the aftermath of the Winnipeg Jets‘ 6-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night at Rogers Place, Hellebuyck was calm and collected as he answered questions at a podium alongside captain Blake Wheeler.
His confidence wasn’t shaken in the least. What he displayed was a steely resolve.
Hellebuyck took responsibility for a puck handling miscue with defenceman Neal Pionk that allowed the Flames to take a 2-1 lead during the second period.
He also threw down the gauntlet, announcing life was about to become a lot more difficult for the Flames when it comes to scoring goals on him.
The tone was right and his answers were succinct. There’s no question that was by design.
We’ve reached the point of this best-of-series where Hellebuyck knows it’s his play that needs to do the talking.
The stakes are crystal clear and Hellebuyck knows full well he needs to find another level.
Having said that, he’s not the reason the Jets are facing elimination for the first time this season come Thursday night.
However, if Hellebuyck doesn’t provide the type of Vezina-calibre performance his teammates have come to expect, it’s going to be awfully tough for the Jets to mount a rally — let alone push this series to a fifth and deciding game.
Why is Hellebuyck so confident that he’s going to make life difficult for the remainder of this series?
He’s got a long line of history to lean on, that’s why.
The road has long been a bumpy one for Hellebuyck — and his ability to navigate the prospective potholes is one of the biggest reasons he’s been able to rise to become one of the best goalies in the NHL.
Never mind his path to becoming the Jets’ No. 1 guy, which included needing to steal the job back after the organization brought in Steve Mason in the summer of 2018.
Hellebuyck has been dealing with more than his fair share of adversity dating back to high school, when he was overlooked in the draft by both the USHL and the NAHL.
The Commerce, MI. product then regrouped and went to a camp for the Odessa Jackalopes in the NAHL.
That’s where Hellebuyck caught the attention of goalie consultant Rick St. Croix on a scouting mission, prompting the Jets to take a flier on him in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Following that, he became a dominant goalie in the NCAA with the UMass-Lowell RiverHawks, winning the inaugural Mike Richter Award.
Hellebuyck then took the American Hockey League by storm, posting all-star numbers with both the St. John’s IceCaps and Manitoba Moose.
When Ondrej Pavelec went down with a knee injury in late November of 2015, Hellebuyck got his first NHL opportunity and made an immediate impact.
Such an impact, in fact, that there was some adversity for Hellebuyck to work through in dealing with the disappointment of being sent back down after Pavelec was healthy once again.
Given how well Hellebuyck had played (2.34 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 26 games), and the fact the Jets weren’t likely going to advance to the playoffs, one could have made the case it was time to turn the net over to the top prospect.
But there was a method to the madness.
The Jets were trying to protect Hellebuyck in some ways and gave him a little more time to marinate in the minors.
After training camp the following season, it was Pavelec placed on waivers and sent to the minors as Hellebuyck was given his first opportunity to be the starter.
Hellebuyck had many shining moments that year, picking up 26 wins in 56 games, but he had some stumbles as well — which is natural for a young goalie.
“That’s where really Connor took it upon himself and grew,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said going into the series. “He’s done an exceptional job of learning about himself and what it takes for him to prepare, what it takes for him to do the things he needs to do in the off-season to strengthen himself and do the things that goalies need to do to get better because it is a different kind of training than a regular player.
“He’s checked off all the boxes in what he’s done.”
Fast forward to the present, where Hellebuyck is a two-time Vezina Trophy nominee and should be the winner when the awards are announced this season.
He’s about to make his 27th post-season start and he’s going to lean on his wide array of experiences.
Hellebuyck will be focusing on himself, but knows he has to outplay Flames starter Cam Talbot, who has been rock-solid to date and given no reason for interim head coach Geoff Ward to consider going to David Rittich.
This isn’t to say that Hellebuyck must be a one-way show Thursday, but he’s going to need to do his part and obviously has what it takes to steal a game — or two, if that’s what is required.
The injuries have been piling up for the Jets and even if any of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Mason Appleton or Mathieu Perreault are able to come out of the infirmary, none of them will be near 100 per cent.
That means the Jets are going to take care of the offence and defence as a collective unit.
Given how the Jets have responded to challenges this season, you can be sure the compete level is going to be high.
But a stellar performance by Hellebuyck is the Jets’ best chance to keep this roller-coaster campaign alive.