In the Winnipeg Jets’ one-sided, series-deciding Game 5 performance, there were many deserving of praise.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba, who scored 31 seconds after puck drop and sent an already ear-ringingly loud Bell MTS Place into a frenzy, played his best game of the series. Bryan Little showed his versatility by moving onto the wing and skating on the second line, and was rewarded with a goal of his own. Brandon Tanev was a buzzsaw, and his tally, the third of the game, felt like the backbreaker, until Joel Armia scored 50 seconds later to spike that final nail deep in the Minnesota Wild’s coffin.
But when Game 5 concluded and the Jets skated away with the series victory, the long-awaited first in franchise history dating all the way back to the team’s Atlanta Thrasher days, it was goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who earned first-star honors. He soaked it up, too, pantomiming a twirl of his own imaginary white rally towel to rile up the sold-out whiteout crowd one last time before he left the ice.
And well he should have. Because in a game where the offense may have done the heavy lifting early, Hellebuyck earned the right to be the last out to salute the fans. He made 30 saves for his second-straight shutout and stifled the Wild attack in the second period when Minnesota looked primed to chip away at the lead with the Jets flatfooted and in a lull. This should have come to the surprise of no one, though, because Hellebuyck has done for almost the entirety of the series.
“We really played three games — and give credit to Connor for it — of almost shutout hockey,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said post-game. “They scored a goal late on a power play (in Game 2) where we didn’t have the killers out that we normally would. We were winding a game down. We played well and all of these games were tighter than the score will tell you it is. All it is is one puck going in or Connor makes one save that keeps it 2-0 instead of 2-1. That changes games.”
No doubt, Hellebuyck has been one of the Jets’ foremost game-changers all season long. There’s a reason, after all, that he finds himself nominated for the Vezina Trophy in this, his third season in the NHL. He set single-season franchise marks for wins (44), saves (1892), save percentage (.924) and shutouts (six).
“He’s been the backbone for our team all season long and he’s been awesome,” Mark Scheifele said. “He’s stood on his head and made the saves when you need him to make the saves. He’s a big part of our success.”
As most will tell you, though, a solid regular season performance does little to ensure that a player is post-season ready. But after stepping up and shutting down the Wild, it seems much safer to suggest Hellebuyck is prepared to succeed in the playoffs now. The most telling aspect of his readiness may not have even been his play in the series-clinching outing, either. Rather, his Game 4 performance with Winnipeg reeling from a lopsided 6-2 loss was proof positive that the Jets’ crease is among the last of their concerns.
Hellebuyck was front and center for that Game 3 defeat, surrendering six goals on 22 shots. That kind of showing would be enough to rattle innumerable young netminders. Hellebuyck, however, didn’t even bat an eye. “I [didn’t] consider that a tough outing,” Hellebuyck said. “I liked my game, I liked the way I felt and sometimes the puck doesn’t go your way. I’m a big believer in my game. I’ve said it enough, and I know sometimes that’s just hockey. I believe that to the bone.”
And why shouldn’t he? Hellebuyck has done nothing less than bounce back with the brilliance of a netminder a decade his senior. His record this season in his next start following a loss? An impressive 12-2-4. And in starts coming after a game in which he allowed three or more goals, Hellebuyck had an outstanding .942 SP and four shutouts. After this five-game defeat of the Wild, Hellebuyck’s post-season numbers after a loss and a game in which he allowed more than three goals? 2-0 with two shutouts. Small sample size and all that, but, on a mental level, he’s bouncing back as a 24-year-old in a way some goaltenders in their mid-30s aren’t able to.
Hellebuyck’s play has assuredly been a stabilizing force for the Jets through the first round, too. With the injury bug biting hard — Winnipeg played Game 5 without five lineup regulars, including the suspended Josh Morrissey and late-scratch Nikolaj Ehlers — and the Jets’ depth tested, Hellebuyck hasn’t looked shaky in the least. “I had to find my game like that,” Hellebuyck said. “I like to be big and boring, and I like to be in position…I don’t like doing things wrong.”
And for his past 120 minutes in the Jets’ crease, he hasn’t. And if Hellebuyck continues to play as he has through five games this post-season, Winnipeg may not have to wait long for the franchise’s first series win to be followed by a second.
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