It has been quite a couple of years for Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Handed the starting job in 2016-17, he struggled enough that a veteran was brought in as insurance during the off-season.
“He went through a process last year,” said Paul Maurice, the Winnipeg coach. “He was given the ball because we felt he was the most talented of all of the options. He was young and had to learn all of the hard things about playing in the NHL.
“I pulled him five times and he would get mad, but he never lost confidence. Everything he went through prepared him for this season. A year in a goalie’s life can make a huge difference.”
Hellebuyck used the doubt expressed in his ability as motivation in the off-season. He trained hard and came in playing significantly better. He set a league record for American-born goalies with 44 victories in a single season and the stellar play has continued during the playoffs.
The Jets are three wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time after beating the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 in the first game of Western Conference championship series on Saturday night.
“It has been a long journey,” said Hellebuyck, who turns 25 on May 19. “There has been a lot of hours spent and a lot of working hard. I always knew I was better than I showed [last year].”
Hellebuyck’s numbers last season were not all that bad. He went 26-19-4, but was inconsistent. That sowed those seeds of doubt within the organization. There are no misgivings anymore.
He is a finalist for the Vézina Trophy along with Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, whom Hellebuyck outplayed in the second round. His counterpart for Vegas, Marc-André Fleury, may well have been among the candidates if he had not missed substantial playing time because of a concussion and upper-body injury.
Fleury, who earned three Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh, had four shutouts in the first two rounds of the playoffs and has won 70 career postseason games.
He was the first player selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and the foundation around which the organization built an elite team in its inaugural season.
“I could lie and say I knew we would be this good, but never expected that,” Fleury said on Sunday. “I am really proud and happy where we are right now.”
He didn’t know what to expect in moving to Las Vegas, but has been pleasantly surprised.
“There were lots of unknowns,” he said. “You know about the Strip, but when you move there you get to know the neighbourhoods. There is so much to do for families, and the fans have been great.”
The Jets supporters serenaded him with taunts of “Fleury, Fleury” after each of the four goals he allowed in Game 1. Game 2 will be played at Bell MTS Place on Monday night.
“It is an interesting environment,” he said. “It was fun. I’d like to think they like me a lot. That’s why they were saying my name so much.”
Hellebuyck had 19 saves and has a .926 save percentage through his first 13 NHL playoff games.
“He is a perfect example of a guy who came in with something to prove this year,” said Matt Hendricks, a veteran centre for Winnipeg. “He had an agenda in the off-season, and has won a lot of games for us. You don’t get this far into the playoffs without having great goaltending.”
A native of Michigan, Hellebuyck was drafted in the fifth round by the Jets in 2012. He played two seasons at UMass Lowell and won the award given to the top goalie in the NCAA his second year. He spent parts of two seasons in the AHL before being called up by Winnipeg in the 2015-16 season. He is at the end of a one-year contract that pays him US$2.25-million, a number will likely soar next year.
He has overcome inconsistency and has gotten used to the pressure of playing in a Canadian market.
“His game has reached an entirely different level,” said John Morrissey, a Jets defenceman. They were teammates for one season in the AHL. “We rely on him every single night.”
Steve Mason, the veteran signed as a free agent during the off-season, has seen only limited action because of a knee injury and two concussions.
“Connor has been very consistent and fun to watch,” Mason said. “I hope he keeps it up for another month.”
The Canadian Press