Connor Hellebuyck looks to be on a Vezina Trophy-winning pace early in 2019-20 but a cameo appearance in Winnipeg’s 5-1 triumph over the visiting Detroit Red Wings Tuesday was probably his most uncomfortable performance of the season thus far.
The 26-year-old goaltender went in cold off the bench when starter Laurent Brossoit required some repair work on his pads. The stint lasted 1:09 on the game clock, just long enough to face two shots, one of which found the back of the net.
It was the briefest appearance of Hellebuyck’s career, with the previous low coming during his rookie season, lasting all of 4:33 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 4, 2016. He stopped three of six shots in that one.
Did he have much time to think about his predicament against the Wings?
“Not necessarily,” Hellebuyck said following practice Wednesday morning at Bell MTS Place. “You just go in and battle. Try to have as little impact on the game as possible. Because I know Brossoit was going back. Just tried to hold down the fort. Unfortunately they got one.”
Hellebuyck, unquestionably Winnipeg’s MVP through 31 regular-season games, isn’t interested in comparing his start in 2019-20 to his breakout year of 2017-18 when he backstopped the Jets all the way to the Western Conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I don’t want to compare to two years ago,” said Hellebuyck, currently carrying a .933 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average. “I’m a better goaltender than two years ago. I just want to continue getting better every day… sometimes it’s going to be statistically beautiful, and sometimes it’s not.”
Jets blue-liner Luca Sbisa, a member of the Golden Knights two seasons ago, marvels at Hellebuyck’s competitive drive.
“That’s one thing I’ve got to know about him — he doesn’t need to be on the ice,” said Sbisa. “Even off the ice, if we play a little soccer or whatever, he wants to win…
“So, he’s got that compete level that is really, really high. He plays like that in the net. He never gives up on a play. I think he’s pretty good at looking through screens and covering his second chances. The rebounds are going to come but never gives up on a play.”
If Hellebuyck ever needed extra incentive, he’ll have it Thursday night when the Jets travel to Detroit for their lone visit of the regular season and he’ll get the start in his hometown.
“The schedule worked out well for us in this one,” said Hellebuyck. “It’s real easy to get going for this. I’m going to have a lot of friends in the crowd, and family. It’s easy to get the juices flowing. It’s a good feel.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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