Connor Hellebuyck went from bored to under siege in an awfully big hurry.
And were it not for another rock-solid performance from the Winnipeg Jets star netminder, the conversation might be about another lost point or two, rather than a 2-1 hang-on-for-dear life victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night.
Hellebuyck faced only seven shots in the first period, but turned aside 22 of the next 23 he faced in what was his 55th start of the regular season.
Had the Jets not stumbled in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, Hellebuyck might have been given the evening off for David Rittich, but given how things have ramped up in this Western Conference playoff chase, the services of the No. 1 guy was required – even if it meant him starting for the third time in four days.
Hellebuyck’s biggest save of the night came during the second period, when he lost his position in the crease but was able to use the paddle of his goal stick to prevent what appeared to be an easy tap-in for Coyotes defenceman Michael Kesselring.
“Just another to add to his highlight reel, I guess,” Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey told reporters. “He’s been incredible for us, certainly all year and for a long time. When they really had their push in the second, he made some massive saves and gave us a chance to regroup in the intermission and to come out in the third and play a lot better. Yeah, that’s what he does for us and we’re certainly happy he’s on our side.”
Count Adam Lowry among those who came away impressed by the most recent highlight-reel stop by Hellebuyck – even if his teammates occasionally become numb to his brilliance.
“You know what, I don’t know. We’ve seen so many great saves by him. He’s never out of the play,” Lowry told reporters. “I think of the one from Vegas earlier in the year, where he just reaches back and gets it with his stick. He’s just got such good hand-eye and reads the game so well. Like I said, he really gave us a chance to win, especially with the way we played in the second period.”
For all of the recent talk about the Jets having slow starts and giving up the goal in five consecutive games and in nine of the previous 10, they were able to buck that trend when Nikolaj Ehlers was able to bang in his own rebound after he was stopped on a breakaway initially by Karel Vejmelka.
Lowry extended the lead and provided what proved to be the eventual game-winner, banging him a one-timer after a nice pass by Morgan Barron that made it 2-0 at the time.
Neal Pionk got the play started with a high flip pass for Lowry’s marker, which gave him double digits in goals for the sixth time in nine seasons.
The Jets’ offence went quiet from there, but Hellebuyck ensured the lead held up, turning aside 17 shots on goal during a second period where his team completely went away from what had given them success in the previous 20 minutes of action.
“We stopped attacking. We got soft with the puck,” Jets head coach Rick Bowness told reporters. “They were fighting to get back in the game. We got hemmed in our zone for a couple of shifts, which took all the steam out of our game. When that happens, someone has to get it and ice the puck and reset. We weren’t even able to get it. We had a couple bad shifts in the second period, we didn’t spend any time in their zone because we were changing. We just had no flow to the game whatsoever.”
The Jets got back to skating in the third period and while they were unable to restore a two-goal cushion during three power plays (including a double minor to Liam O’Brien for high-sticking) and finished zero-for-six with the man-advantage, Winnipeg was able to run out the clock and secure a valuable two points to remain in the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
“That third period, we played the right way, we did all the little things necessary,” said Bowness. “We controlled the pace of the game, we played on our toes, and were a much harder team to play against. We were pressuring them all over the ice. That’s Winnipeg Jet hockey.”
The Jets’ power play is now stuck in the middle of a zero-for-19 rut and the continued tweaks on the personnel side of things has not led directly to results, even if there are some signs of life as the units become a bit less predictable for the opposition to defend against.
Some tweaks were required at even strength, as Bowness juggled the top-six once again, breaking up Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele, who continue to work through a funk that goes back to before they were benched for nearly 12 minutes in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes one week earlier.
Connor has now gone 11 games without a goal, Scheifele has gone six games without a goal and Blake Wheeler has gone 18 games without finding the back of the net.
At a time when goals continue to be tough to come by, that’s not enough production from a trio of players the Jets need to rely on during the final 10 games of the regular season.
Without moving one of his wingers down to the third line and promoting Vladislav Namestnikov or potentially bumping Barron up into the top-six, Bowness is running a bit short on permutations and combinations that could provide a spark to the offence.
Reuniting Connor with Pierre-Luc Dubois makes a lot of sense, while giving that line Nino Niederreiter could create a bit more space for Connor to get a few more dangerous scoring chances away.
That leaves Scheifele with Wheeler and Ehlers, at least for the time being.
In many ways, the Jets were fortunate to come away with two valuable points against the Coyotes.
But for this group to put together some sustained success on this upcoming three-game road trip through California, Bowness is going to need to find some line combinations with chemistry and continue to look for solutions to a languishing power play that simply needs to get back to basics.
“These points are crucial. We weren’t satisfied with how we played in the second period. So I think coming out in the third period, our power play generated some momentum for us,” said Lowry. “They had some great looks, I think it’s just a matter of time before that one breaks open for us. They did a really great job of getting pucks to the net and keeping that momentum going.
“I think sometimes you don’t score on the power play and you lose it, but I thought in the third period, those guys went out there and they created a lot and we were able to carry that into the five-on-five play as well.”