Jets remain confident in goaltending despite off night from Hellebuyck

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck discusses why he thinks he should've been allowed to try and finish what he started in the game against the Maple Leafs, after letting in 3 of the first 6 shots and being pulled.

WINNIPEG — That goaltending was a storyline in this marquee matchup during the latest challenge for top spot in the North Division didn’t exactly qualify as breaking news.

But on a day that began with a logical discussion about how Connor Hellebuyck could play a massive role in how things shake down in this battle between the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, an unexpected plot twist emerged.

Having Hellebuyck pulled after surrendering goals on each of the first two shots he faced (before the game was 80 seconds old), and three on just six shots in total, simply wasn’t something that either head coach had in mind going into the eighth of 10 meetings between the two clubs.

Yet Laurent Brossoit was summoned into the contest at 11:59 of the first period, while Hellebuyck made the long and frustrated walk down the tunnel after being yanked early for just the second time in the 37 starts (which leads the NHL) he’s made.

This wasn’t a matter of Hellebuyck being overworked or fatigued, as the Jets hadn’t played since being blanked by the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.

It was nothing other than a rare off night, one where Hellebuyck simply wasn’t as sharp as usual.

Two shots from distance beat him, though one of those appeared to change direction off Jason Spezza just outside the crease.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice had seen enough and in an effort to try and shift the momentum, he went to the bullpen.

When speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, Hellebuyck was emphatic that he didn't agree with the decision.

“It was a 3-2 game, and I don't think I should have been pulled. That's as far as I'll go on that,” Hellebuyck said. “I don't think last game was an off-game. I felt fine in the net. I'm not going to lie and say I was A-plus material, but I thought the game that I had was good enough to win. And it was only going to get better if I was given the opportunity to grow in that game.

“Let's say I did finish the game and they had somewhere around 30 shots. You're looking at three goals in 30 shots. You're not panicking. You're not saying, 'Oh what a horrible game.' Are there places to improve? Yes. But at the end of the day, if you give your team a chance to win that's all you can ask for. Unfortunately it came in the first period. Especially in the new NHL, this is smaller equipment, you're going to get bad bounces once in a while. You've just got to accept it and try to improve from it. If you look at a full game, it's not that big of a deal. But just the fact it happened on the first six shots is probably what made it such a big deal.”

That fighting spirit is part of what makes Hellebuyck one of the best goalies in the NHL.

“There would not be a night going back to his first year that he got pulled and he thought he should have been pulled,” Maurice said. “In his mind, he’s going to stop the next 75 shots he faces. And that’s all part of it. He was like our hockey club in that game. I’ve got a high level of expectation for him. He’s played an awful lot of hockey and we want to make sure that the minutes on him are right and if I don’t think it’s going for him or I don’t think there’s enough up front to tell me in a game at the three-quarter pole of the season, as important as it was, I’m going to make a change.”

Hellebuyck has bailed out his teammates a whole lot more than he’s let them down — and history has shown that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner often shakes off a rare rough outing by basically putting up a brick wall.

No panic buttons were being pushed and no alarms were going off in the aftermath.

“Honestly, Connor is, we think, the best goalie in the world and just one of those nights where a couple snuck by him early,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who chipped in an assist as he returned to the lineup after missing the past six games with a concussion. “[Brossoit] came in and did a great job. I mean, we kept [the deficit] to a goal the entire game and had a chance to tie it up at the end. It’s obviously a team that’s been first in the NHL for a long time, on a little bit of a skid and they packed it pretty tight in the third.”

The Jets lost consecutive games in regulation time for just the second time this season and when the two teams meet again on Saturday, Winnipeg will be looking to avoid its first three-game losing skid.

The Maple Leafs snapped a five-game losing skid and found a way to expand the lead atop the North Division standings to six points, though the Jets hold a game in hand.

With 10 games remaining for the Jets, there’s a greater concern than jockeying for position with the Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers.

The Jets lost centre Adam Lowry to a suspected head injury after he was on the receiving end of a blindside check from Maple Leafs left winger Alex Galchenyuk late in the first period.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice didn’t have an update on the severity of the injury following the game, nor did he have any interest in sharing his thoughts on a play that didn’t result in a minor penalty on the ice.

“The refs already made their decision on that hit, so what I've got to say doesn't mean anything,” said Maurice, who kept his answers succinct during his Zoom availability.

Wheeler did share a few thoughts about the hit in question and much like Maurice, it was obvious he didn’t like it one bit.

“It looked late and high,” Wheeler said. “I mean, [Lowry] is six inches taller than him so you’ve got to get pretty high to get him. So you don’t see [Lowry] go down too often like that. Hopefully, he’s doing all right.”

When asked about the potential for retribution, Maurice wasn’t about to add any fuel to the fire.

“If you circle a guy’s name on the board, you get sued,” Maurice said.

It didn’t come as a shock that the temperature in this game was on the rise, given the high volume of meetings and what was at stake in the standings.

At one point, former Columbus Blue Jackets teammates Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nick Foligno (who was making his Maple Leafs debut) got into it during the second period.

Dubois didn’t like a hit Foligno delivered on Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey and went right at him.

After moving back into his natural position of centre, Dubois had one of his best outings in 31 games with the Jets.

Although he wasn’t credited with a point on the play, Dubois played an important role on the Jets second goal, making a smart zone entry before he helped force a T.J. Brodie turnover that led to Copp’s 15th goal of the season.

Dubois was engaged physically and much more involved offensively, finishing with four shots on goal and seven shot attempts while playing just over 19 minutes.

This was the type of performance the Jets will be looking for from Dubois during the stretch run and into the post-season.

Having Dubois play at that level will be even more critical should Lowry be sidelined for any length of time due to injury.

Sure, the Jets have depth down the middle and at the forward position, but Lowry plays a pivotal role on the penalty kill and often is tasked with going head-to-head with the likes of Auston Matthews.

“He’s a big part of our team, on and off the ice, brings a physical element, has centred that third line since I’ve been here and has been very, very good at it,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “We’ve handled injuries numerous, numerous times. We’ve got a deep group up front, so we’re able to handle those injuries, handling that adversity with the makeup of our team. But obviously losing Adam, if it is losing Adam, it’s a big loss.”

One of the answers the Jets are still searching for is the formula to try and contain Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner, who combined for two goals and five points in the contest.

That job only gets more challenging if Lowry is on the shelf.

The Maple Leafs duo has feasted on the Jets this season, with Marner producing five goals and 12 points in eight games and Matthews chipping in five goals and nine points in seven games.

Much like the difficulty the Jets are having with limiting the contributions of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, that also holds true against the Maple Leafs' big guns.

That’s where elite goaltending is meant to be the great equalizer for the Jets — even if that didn’t end up being the case on Thursday.

“Knowing he’s back there and just how well he’s played for us for a long time now, he gives you a ton of confidence to just go play,” Morrissey said. “He’s just so solid in net. He never looks out of control or rattled or that anything is bothering him. He’s just so calm in the net. He works extremely hard every day, so you know he’s prepared to play and prepared to be at his best. That just radiates out through the team and the rest of the guys feel that.

“I just think so highly of Connor and his game. I feel like every night we have a chance to win when he’s in the net, no matter who we are playing against. That’s why he won the Vezina last year. I think he can duel it out with any goaltender in the league.”

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