WINNIPEG — Go ahead and call Connor Hellebuyck the great equalizer.
If the blocker fits, you might as well attach it to the Winnipeg Jets goaltender.
At this stage of the proceedings, the Toronto Maple Leafs have probably muttered more than a few choice words under their collective breath in response to what they’ve seen so far from Connor Hellebuyck through two games of this mid-season series with the Jets.
Whether it’s Hellebuyck casually using the paddle of his stick to thwart a scoring chance off the left skate of William Nylander, or using his glove to snare a slapper off the stick of Joe Thornton, the highlight reel was full of saves like those on Thursday night in Toronto. Never mind the three breakaways Hellebuyck calmly turned aside.
But it wasn’t enough.
Auston Matthews made a lightning-quick move to his backhand 59 seconds into overtime to propel the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 overtime victory after the Jets narrowly missed winning the game at the other end of the ice.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice conceded that it was probably a just result, given how the ice was tilted heavily in the Maple Leafs’ favour in terms of chances created compared to chances allowed.
Sure, the Maple Leafs were able to exhale as they snapped a season-high three-game losing streak, happily putting the extra point into the piggy bank as they widened their cushion over the Jets in the North Division standings to six points (with the Jets holding two games in hand).
But as the Zoom calls were taking place, one of the emerging themes revolved around whether the Jets might actually be showing the Maple Leafs — and perhaps the rest of the North Division — that they could be emerging as a legitimate contender.
Make no mistake, this was not the template teams around the NHL are going to implement as a strategy to try and beat the Maple Leafs, who held a decisive edge in the play, and a wide disparity when it comes to the generation of high-danger scoring chances (21-5, according to Natural Stat Trick).
However, what seems obvious right now is that any team that is going to give the Maple Leafs a run for top spot is going to need to incorporate two critical components: elite-level goaltending and high-end finishing ability.
Let’s start with the former.
Hellebuyck was pulled Saturday in Montreal after surrendering four goals on 19 shots to the Canadiens, marking the first time this season he’d been given the hook.
Since that time, Hellebuyck was the first star in the series opener, then followed that up with another virtuoso performance, giving him 70 saves in the two games.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler channelled the 2.0 version of his “pump the brakes” quote from 2018 as he answered a question about whether a goaltending performance like the ones Hellebuyck’s delivered these past two games might plant a seed of doubt in the Maple Leafs’ minds should they meet when it matters most.
“We have to qualify for the playoffs before we can worry about who we’re playing in the playoffs. We play these guys again in a couple days,” said Wheeler. “Our goalie was outstanding, there’s no question. That should be the storyline. He stood on his head for us. But we also have a locker room full of guys who played their asses off, too.
“I don’t think Toronto is talking in their media that it was a cakewalk playing us tonight. I think we played our tails off. When we needed Helly, he certainly stood up to the task. We’re going to worry about Saturday’s game. I think we play these guys five or six more times in the regular season. If that all shakes out and we so happen to play them in playoff time, I think they’ll know what style of game we play, and we’ll know what style of game they play. And we’ll take it from there.”
Hellebuyck was indeed the story for the Jets, showcasing signs of the form he rode to his first Vezina Trophy win last season.
While the numbers haven’t been quite as tidy so far, Hellebuyck is tasked with handling a remarkably heavy workload when it comes to the type of quality opportunities he faces regularly.
Never mind the numbers, he’s giving his team a chance to win, even on the nights its not operating at an optimal level.
Hellebuyck wasn’t about to throw his teammates under the bus when asked if it felt like he’d been hung out to dry on a number of occasions.
“I’m never going to use those words. I did my job. The guys in front of me got us to OT, so they clearly did their job,” said Hellebuyck. “Not every night is going to be perfect. Not every night is going to be a defensive win, not every night you’re going to get the best goaltending. That’s what I love about this team. We have it all and we can do it all. Even when once, maybe it wasn’t our best defensive game, but we still got to OT. We did some good things and we have some things to improve on. Me, personally, I stole a lot of goals, so I’m happy with my performance and I’m just looking forward to the next one.
“Any time you can take a team to OT, it closes the gap a little bit more. It’s a small victory, but, obviously, in this league, we want to win. We’re not cherishing the point, but it’s better than not getting one.”
The other thing that any team that wants to try and beat the Maple Leafs in a seven-game series is going to have to do is find ways to score.
Enter Nikolaj Ehlers, whose dynamic play is finally gaining him some of the recognition he deserves while spending a bit more time under the microscope in this all-Canadian division.
His high-end shooting talent was once again on display, rifling a perfect shot off the post and in to open the scoring late in the first period.
Ehlers followed that up by banging home a one-timer after a perfect feed from linemate Kyle Connor.
If scoring twice to regain the team goal lead with 13 markers wasn’t enough, Ehlers set up Paul Stastny for a redirection that allowed the Jets to score with the extra attacker on the ice to send the game to overtime and secure a point.
This was easily the best offensive game for the Jets’ second line, which features Pierre-Luc Dubois between Ehlers and Connor.
But on a night they created plenty, they were also on the ice for three even-strength goals against — and that didn’t sit well with Ehlers.
“Yeah, you know what, I think our line was great offensively. We got chances, we scored on them,” said Ehlers. “And defensively we weren’t strong enough. We were on the ice for all three of those goals and that sucks. That doesn’t feel good. And that’s something that I’ve got to change.”
That level of accountability was music to the ears of Maurice.
“That’s growth, right? That’s major growth for a young player,” said Maurice. “He scores two, on the ice for a bunch, and that’s what he takes home with him. He didn’t like the way that went. That’s a good thing. He’s not in a bad mental state. He’s putting pucks in the net, but at the same time, he knows that he was on the ice when they were, so that doesn’t make him very happy.
“We’re not going to individualize blame on those goals, so he’s on the ice and that’s the way he takes that. He takes it as a line. Nikolaj really this year, we saw it in the bubble where he took a step forward for us. You look at his play in terms of his compete and his battle and being hard on pucks and obviously the skill that comes out on those two goals that he scored. But this guy’s playing some great, great hockey for us. That’s the maturity there. He wants the win more than the stats. That’s a great thing.”
The Jets were quick to downplay the measuring-stick element of this series going into it — and that hasn’t changed with two more head-to-head games already in the books.
“We don’t judge ourselves by the other team. We’re focused on our game,” said Wheeler. “Obviously, Toronto has had a great season and they’re a really good team, they play really hard. There’s not a lot of free ice out there for either side, as you can see. Pretty good, hard-fought battles, both of these games.
“I think we’re a glass-half-full type of team. We’re down a goal with a couple minutes left. Anytime you’re down a goal, you pull your goaltender and you tie the game up, you feel like you stole a point.”
With seven games still to play in this 10-game season series, there’s plenty of time to see whether or not the Jets can provide a true push for the Maple Leafs.
What’s become abundantly clear is that the entertainment value is high when these teams get together and the intensity level figures to once again be on the rise with the rubber match of this series set for Saturday night.
“It’s definitely going to be a high-flying game. These are two really good teams,” said Hellebuyck. “You can feel it, you can feel the energy, you can just see in everyone’s eyes that everyone knows that this isn’t going to be an easy one. We can’t just walk through this team and we have to fight for every inch of ice. They might have got it (Thursday), but the next one, it’s going to be on.”