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Bring it on, says Connor Hellebuyck, who thrives on being on the receiving end of high-velocity blasts of vulcanized rubber.
But he’s the only one within the Winnipeg Jets organization that revels in seeing the No.1 netminder get overworked.
Hellebuyck was peppered with 42 drives in St. Louis on Thursday but stood tall as the Jets prevailed 5-1 over the Blues in the season opener for both Central Division squads. Two nights later, the Dallas Stars ripped 35 shots at the Winnipeg net and made good on five of them in a 5-1 victory over the visitors.
“Both games, we gave up quite a few shots. It’s not something we want to make a trend. It’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure we put on Hellebuyck” – Jets centre Bryan Little
Totals for those counting at home? Seventy-one stops on 77 shots for a .922 save percentage.
Did he feel like he was under siege by the Central Division rivals?
“It’s a lot. You know what, though? I love it. It’s so much fun playing. I think the guys know that I’m ready to play,” Hellebuyck said Monday morning, as the team returned to practice at the Iceplex after an off-day Thanksgiving Sunday.
Winnipeg (1-1-0) hosts the Los Angeles Kings (1-0-1) tonight in the Jets’ much-anticipated home opener at Bell MTS Place.
Centre Adam Lowry and defenceman Jacob Trouba missed Monday’s practice but will be in the lineup Tuesday, Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.
The Jets’ troubles against Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and the explosive Stars weren’t difficult to identify. The hosts were afforded far too many power-play chances and Dallas made good on three of five. Winnipeg was dreadful at the faceoff dot, allowed the Stars free range in the neutral zone and covered poorly in front of Hellebuyck.
It’s a small sample size, to be certain, but the bad habits need shaking in a hurry.
“Both games, we gave up quite a few shots. It’s not something we want to make a trend. It’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure we put on Hellebuyck,” centre Bryan Little said. “I think it starts with our own game, in terms of being smarter with it and generating our own offence, and that will get their shot totals down.
“At the same time, we’re not too worried. I think there’s lots of room for improvement.”
“There’s so many powerful teams and the four right off the start for us is a real good challenge for us to get our game right” – Jets head coach Paul Maurice
Winnipeg dropped its first two games of the 2017-18 season by lopsided scores but then downed the host Edmonton Oilers 5-2 and finished October at 6-3-2.
The team finished second-overall in the NHL with a franchise-best 52-20-10 record, yielding 39 fewer goals (216) than the previous season.
The Kings have plenty of offensive weaponry, with captain Anže Kopitar coming off a career-high 35 goals and 92 points last season. He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy and won the Selke as the best defensive forward in the NHL. Dustin Brown is out indefinitely with a broken finger but the Kings still have Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, while adding former two-time 50-goal scorer in Ilya Kovalchuk, who is back in the NHL after five years in the KHL.
L.A. can generate offence from its aging blue-line group — Drew Doughty, a consistent Norris Trophy candidate, along with Jake Muzzin, Derek Forbort, Alec Martinez and Dion Phaneuf.
“They’ve had a real bad run of injuries for the last few years. We didn’t see Carter for an awfully long time. He’s an elite player; that line has an awful lot of speed and they can be very, very strong. Kovalchuk and Kopitar together, that would be an elite tandem in the NHL,” Maurice said. “And then they’re gonna grind, their back end is solid.”
After facing the Kings, the Jets head back on the road to meet the Nashville Predators, still likely smarting after bowing out of the post-season in seven games to Winnipeg.
“There’s so many powerful teams and the four right off the start for us is a real good challenge for us to get our game right,” Maurice said.
Winnipeg’s penalty kill took its lumps Saturday as Benn scored twice and Seguin potted one with the Stars enjoying the man advantage. The unit was a microcosm of how passive the Jets performed in Dallas.
“It’s just slow. It wouldn’t be, ‘Hey guys, our penalty kill, we like to run a slow one,’” a sardonic Maurice said. “We’re trying to get the routes right at the expense of getting them done quickly. Maybe a little too aware, so we end up standing an awful lot. Not nearly enough pressure on the puck right from the entry.”
Meanwhile, it looks like Nikolaj Ehlers will play on the left side with Little and his pal, right-winger Patrik Laine. He replaced Mathieu Perreault on the trio for several shifts in the 5-1 defeat.
“I’ve played with them before, so it’s nothing new. We have to try and create some chemistry and try and find our way back into playing the right way. It’s going to be exciting,” Ehlers said, still looking for his first point.
Perreault skated with Jack Roslovic and rookie Kristian Vesalainen in Monday’s line rushes.
“Just trying to get something going from the two lines there. They haven’t had a lot of action and spent a bit of time in their own end, so we need to get Nikky skating and driving and being a key piece to that line,” Maurice said.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).