Jets, Hellebuyck still focusing on improvements

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) makes a save. (Julio Cortez/AP)

WINNIPEG — The pucks were sifting past Connor Hellebuyck at practice Wednesday morning at a rate that did not meet his liking. This, after the final shot the night before had also eluded him when Joe Pavelski converted with less than five seconds left in regulation to sink the Winnipeg Jets, 5-4.

The Pavelski goal, a two-on-one that left Hellebuyck hopeless, was accurately described by the goaltender as “a kick in the nuts.”

The stream of pucks that eluded him in that practice session didn’t exactly serve as an ice pack for Hellebuyck’s, er, pride, either. So he got up from his butterfly, turned around, and summarily trashed a goal stick over the crossbar.

This has been Hellebuyck’s season: a kick in the groin, and a handful of kindling.

“I don’t like losing games, so I let out a little anger. Show some emotion,” he reasoned. “Showed that I care.”

Hellebuyck is an interesting study. He is nothing like your average hockey player, which we like, in that he’s unafraid to show overt, on-the-record confidence, and he is never afraid to give you an answer that refutes the question.

Like when he was asked about the state of his game, not 24 hours after allowing five goals against San Jose.

“I like it. It’s in a really good spot. I’ve been peaking at the right time,” Hellebuyck said. “Granted, I don’t like getting scored on five times, but I think I was doing a lot of things right, and I still see a little bit of improvement. And when the playoffs come around, it’s a whole new season.”

This is where the goalie and the team in front of him become a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario. It’s pretty obvious the Jets have simply given up more this season than last. And Hellebuyck’s save percentage has plummeted from last year’s .924 to .909, with the Boston Bruins on tap Thursday night at the MTS Centre.

Take the Sharks’ game-wining goal as an example: It was a two-on-one goal that gets stopped maybe once in six or seven attempts, caused by “a dumb mistake,” as Nik Ehlers described his attempted cross-ice pass that Marc-Edouard Vlasic tipped up to Timo Meier, who would feed Pavelski.

“It’s a stupid play,” said Ehlers, who was wearing the defeat like a top coat on Wednesday. “You’ve got eight seconds left, try and force that through that hasn’t been going through all game?

“I want to make nice passes, but at some point during the game you gotta start playing the simple game and just chip in the puck, get the puck to the net and create something off that, and I didn’t do that last night.”

Like the old joke about two places never to make a drop pass — at home, and on the road — there are times to try that cross-ice pass, and times to keep it in your holster. But Ehlers misjudged, and now Hellebuyck wears that goal on his stats, and the ‘L’ on his record.

How fine is the line between setting up the winner and a giveaway that costs a game, Ehler was asked?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

That’s OK, Nik. Your coach, Paul Maurice knows.

“You make the right play,” Maurice said. “Seams are good if they’re there. And if they’re forced, they’re such a difficult thing to defend against.”

Maurice knows that skill needs to run, but he also needs to make sure the track has a finish line. He has a team full of guys who can make that pass. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to try it for 60 minutes each night.

“Every guy can tell you a play and show you a play,” Maurice begins, “where he toe-dragged, spun it backhand into the middle, knocked it down, slipped it through the seam four times and put in the back door. I’ll tell you what, they remember that play because they see it on TV for four straight days.

“But that event — the opportunity for that event — just doesn’t present itself very often at this time of year. I like the confidence and I like the courage it takes to make that play.

“But time and place. Make the right play.”

They’re working on that, here in Winnipeg. And Hellebuyck is working on his game as well.

One goal stick at a time.

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