As the playoff push ramps up, Hellebuyck changes what the Jets believe is possible

Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 42 shots he faced to record his fourth shutout of the season as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 4-0.

WINNIPEG — Some saw a turning back of the clock to a simpler time.

Others probably saw a pretty good reason for hope.

Depending on the lens you were viewing the Winnipeg Jets' 4-0 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night, your conclusions on the bigger picture could vary widely.

One thing that was easy to identify was the brilliance Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck displayed in making 42 saves to record his fourth shutout of the season in a game that was squarely in the must-have category.

The narrative surrounding Hellebuyck this season has been mixed, especially for those who simply can’t get past the mediocre traditional raw numbers that include a 2.96 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

Hellebuyck hasn’t played as poorly as those totals suggest, though the larger issue has been how many nights he’s been the second-best goalie on the ice.

This assessment also comes with a caveat, as the Jets are among the worst defensive teams in the league when it comes to allowing prime scoring chances, thanks in part to a puck-management issue that’s plagued this team for the entire season (and beyond).

He’s the busiest goalie in the NHL and, with this latest start, Hellebuyck is up to 54 games played. With 18 more to go, he’s well on pace to eclipse his career high of 67, set in 2017-18 — which, coincidentally, was a season he finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets' faith in Hellebuyck has been evident and it’s games like this one that reinforce why he’s the foundation for this group and has the ability to have a massive impact as this playoff chase goes into overdrive.

There was a glimmer in Hellebuyck's eye as he sat behind the podium alongside Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to take questions from reporters.

Dubois showed some levity when asked about the performance of Connor and he quipped, “which one, you mean KC?” referring to linemate Kyle Connor, who chipped in two assists to move him to 79 points in 64 games.

As it turns out, the high engagement level isn’t limited to on the ice for Dubois these days but he quickly got serious and tossed a well-deserved bouquet in the direction of his goalie.

“I’m kidding. He played well might be an understatement,” said Dubois, who recorded his 25th goal of the campaign, moving within two of his career-high. “I know we say wins at this point in the season are all that matter but I think we can play better than that. You know, when we have a guy like him back there in net to repair our mistakes, especially when we spend amounts of time in our zone, it’s huge. It gives us a lot of confidence to keep playing.

"Any team that’s trying to win a Stanley Cup, you need a goalie that can help you win games when you’re not playing that well. We know we can play a lot better. When we have (Hellebuyck) back there, if we can keep playing well and he can keep playing like this, anything is possible.”

Hellebuyck was quiet and calm in his crease, squaring up pucks while showcasing strong rebound control.

Quite simply, he was back to playing the style folks around these parts have become accustomed to: big and boring.

Nobody is expecting Hellebuyck to steal every game that he appears in, but this was a not-so-subtle reminder of what he looks like when he’s playing at an optimal level.

“It was one of those nights that they just hit you. I could tell early on when the puck was just going my way, bounces were going my way, tips were going my way, posts were going my way,” said Hellebuyck. “It was just one of those nights. We were always in the mix but now we’re really in the mix. It’s not how we want to play, but wins at this point are huge, and we can continue building and get some momentum off of it.

“When teams see us coming, they are going to step on the gas, too. You see this every year, it gets tight, no one lets off the gas. We’ve got to know we can’t have a night off at this point.”

With the NHL trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, there was a sense of relief that surrounded the Jets during the morning skate and while it didn't immediately translate into an inspiring performance, they found a way to get the job done on a night they clearly didn’t have their best.

That’s not an indictment, it’s a compliment.

But it’s also a reminder that better efforts will be required moving forward.

This isn’t going to cut it against a team that has better finishing ability, as the depleted Golden Knights have been blanked in consecutive games while losing seven of the past nine games in regulation time to fall below the playoff line.

Vegas Golden Knights’ William Carrier’s (28) shot goes wide as Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) tries to get back in the crease. (Fred Greenslade/CP)

Earlier in the day, Jets captain Blake Wheeler weighed in with his thoughts on the deadline moves, saying thank you and so long to the departing players like Andrew Copp, Nathan Beaulieu and even longtime linemate Bryan Little, whose transaction is merely on paper since he won’t play again, though it helps get the organization out of LTIR.

Wheeler made sure to roll out the welcome mat for the likes of Mason Appleton and Zach Sanford, he also acknowledged that being in 10th place in the West played a role in how Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff handled this deadline compared to others when he was squarely in the buyer category.

“I didn't take it as any type of message. I think we just have to be realistic in where we're positioned now,” said Wheeler, who chipped in a pair of assists. “I don't think that anyone's waving the white flag. I think we're still very much in the battle, and very much in the fight. The additions, I think, would cater to that, giving a boost and some new faces and some guys that can provide some depth in our forward group. We're positioned now to be competitive and hopefully fight for a playoff spot.

“There is a good team in that room.”

By improving to 30-24-10 on the season, the Jets are now three points behind the Dallas Stars in the chase for the final playoff post in the Western Conference (though the Stars hold two games in hand).

The Jets are two games into a stretch that features four more contests against teams that currently reside below the playoff line.

Dubois predicted on Sunday that a 15-5 record might be required for the Jets to punch their playoff ticket and so far, the team is off to a 2-0 start.

There was plenty to dissect in both of those games, but the points count the same in the bank as those that came in crisper performances.

“We found a way to win a hockey game and the biggest thing is that I’m not going to sit up here and beat up a win,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “They’re hard to win and sometimes you win an ugly game and that was the case (on Tuesday).”

With games coming up on Thursday against the Ottawa Senators and Friday against Patrik Laine and the Columbus Blue Jackets, the expectation was that backup Eric Comrie was probably going to start one of those games.

Does the shutout change the strategy the Jets initially planned to employ or potentially lead to changing the order?

Only Lowry and Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty know for sure.

It’s the beauty of this time of the season, trying to successfully navigate the balancing act between riding the hot hand and also trying to keep him fresh while not going too long between starts for the backup.

No matter when Comrie plays again, the Jets are going to need more outings like this one from Hellebuyck in order to keep their post-season dreams alive.

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