WINNIPEG - Connor Hellebuyck has made his case to make room on the marquee.
Right now, he’s got the billboard all to himself.
In a series that features plenty of star power, it is the Winnipeg Jets goalie that’s been shining brightest.
Thanks to his latest virtuoso performance, which included a 38-save shutout in the 1-0 triumph, the Jets hold a commanding 2-0 lead in the Smythe Division reunion battle with the Edmonton Oilers.
No, this isn’t a simple one-man show.
It’s an outstanding defensive commitment by an entire team.
But Hellebuyck, who has turned aside 70 of 71 shots he’s faced in this series, is doing more than simply giving his teammates an opportunity to win.
He’s back to playing at a Vezina Trophy level and that’s exactly what the Jets need from him right now.
“He’s the reason we have a chance. He’s the reason we are a playoff team and the reason we have confidence every time we go out there,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “You just can’t say enough about having a guy who you believe is going to stop every shot. And when one does go in, you just kind of say, ‘Well, that was lucky.’ It’s such a great confidence boost for the group where you don’t feel like you have to play perfect hockey.
“I think that’s probably what he would say, that it’s his job to clean up our mistakes. It just gives guys so much confidence to go out there and play with a little bit more freedom, a little bit more confidence knowing that if I make the wrong play at the wrong time, I got a guy back there that can bail me out.”
As for the lone goal in this one, it was the result of an excellent zone entry and net drive by Andrew Copp — and a deft, experienced play by veteran centre Paul Stastny, who showed great patience and waited a split second for a double screen to develop in front of Mike Smith before unleashing his shot at 4:06 of the first overtime.
“At first I was going to try and look for (Copp) but he just slashed across. So I figured I'd try to use the D as a screen, and just put the puck on net,” said Stastny. “I feel like in overtime, whether you're trying to score or whether you're trying to generate offence, sometimes that's the easiest way to do it. The puck had eyes and fortunately it went in.”
Stastny has been praised for his hockey intelligence on countless occasions and that hockey intelligence was on full display on the overtime winner — which was the second of his 15-year career.
“He’s been in enough playoff games to know that anything that goes to the net is the right decision,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “He’s played two really, really smart games. Some of his positioning in-zone is just veteran. He knows how to change his body angle on so many plays, just to get to the right place.
“He kind of does it on that goal. He sat on the wall for just a bit to open up a lane to the inside, almost bait (Oilers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov) a little bit and then gets a shot to the net.”
The Jets are doing what many believed simply wasn’t possible.
After dropping nine of the final 12 games during the regular season — including a seven-game losing streak that featured a goal-scoring famine and some defensive-zone deficiencies that have since cleaned up — the Jets said all of the right things about finding a style of game that would allow them to compete in the playoffs.
They’ve since backed up those words with actions.
The Jets were regularly on the right side of the puck and almost always kept the third forward up high, which helped prevent the Oilers from gaining much traction in the transition game.
And in case you hadn’t heard, the Jets have managed to hold the top two scorers in the NHL — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — without a point in consecutive games after they combined for 34 points in nine games during the regular-season series.
“I don't think we really look at it that way. I mean, both those two guys are, one or two in the world right now. (The) best two players,” said Wheeler. “They're creating chances. They're making plays. I think we've just got to try to not give them chances. That's the biggest thing, the chances they create, they're working for. We saw it all year. We gave them some easy chances and they're in the net, right?
“So we're just trying to make them work for the chances. With that being said, they're still creating chances. They're still so dynamic.”
Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo was one of the reasons this game required overtime.
Down and seemingly out while laying on the ice and with his back to the play during a penalty-killing situation early in the third period, DeMelo threw up both of his arms in desperation in an effort to try and prevent McDavid from scoring.
Sure enough, McDavid’s shot went off the right wrist of DeMelo instead of finding the back of the net.
“Honestly, it was just pure chaos and desperation,” said DeMelo. “I just remember going down and I saw the puck go to McDavid. I was on my back, so I have to throw something up, but I was on my back so I was thinking maybe I’ll two-pad stack it, but I don’t think I had the extension.
“So I just put my hands up and luckily it hit me. Even if you see behind that, it hits me, but all these guys are jumping in front of that puck. You need that type of desperation and sacrifice. It was lucky that it hit me and the guys did a great job on the penalty kill for sure. It was a crazy play for sure.”
While DeMelo missed several shifts getting some medical attention, he returned to finish the game.
“I thought that that was the emotional change to the game,” said Maurice, whose team also survived a 21-second five-on-three disadvantage. “The kills on those plays and that was a big deal for our team and (it) kind of set the mood right going for the rest of the night.
“(DeMelo) is a real popular guy in our room, plays a real smart, hard game. That goes a long way. They fire that up on the JumboTron, everybody gets a piece of it.”
The sacrifice was one of many made by the Jets in this game.
“We just did everything we could to get the win. It maybe wasn't perfect or pretty every play, but I think we have a team that can grind real well,” said DeMelo. “And at this time of year, it's going to take everybody. Every blocked shot matters, every hit matters. I think we're just coming together as a team and everybody's pulling on the same rope, and it's been a lot of fun here. To come out with two wins here is huge. We still have a lot of work to do and they're not going to roll over.”
The next two games will be played on consecutive days, beginning Sunday in Winnipeg, and the Jets could get another boost to the lineup with the potential return of dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who has missed the past 11 games with a suspected shoulder injury.
With Pierre-Luc Dubois entering the series on Friday, that would give the Jets a full complement of forwards for the first time in a month.
It turns out that late-season swoon didn’t only remind the Jets they needed to buckle down in terms of style of play, a change in attitude also followed.
After enduring agony and ample frustration, some perspective was required, along with a reminder that the playoffs bring opportunity, as long as a team is willing to do the heavy lifting.
If you can survive a stretch like that without coming apart at the seams, anything is possible.
“We’re just in the moment. We’re enjoying it. We truly are,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “We lost nine of 10 games there coming home. I think it kind of gives you, maybe it takes some of the pressure off and gives you a little bit of a hardness that if you can go through a stretch like that and come out on the other side of it and not crumble and still be fighting, it doesn’t really get much worse than that. We’re just really enjoying this. That’s been Paul’s message to us. Listen, these chances don’t just come around every year. You want to make the most of them. And there’s a compete and an energy and a hardness that you’ve got to bring to the table.
“When you’re playing tight, when you’re worried about making a mistake, worried about making the wrong play, you go half a speed and you end up not playing as much. We’re just loose, enjoying it, having some fun.”
That return to having fun has the Jets two wins away from advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2018.