Jets goaltender likes where his game is at

Criticize Connor Hellebuyck for the junky performance he posted in last week’s season opener in Manhattan, or commend him for a pair of spectacular nights in the crease since then.

The Winnipeg Jets No. 1 goalie tunes out the chatter, anyway.

While the sample size is rather puny, Hellebuyck’s play between the pipes in victories over the Penguins on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and the Minnesota Wild on Thursday at Bell MTS Place was reminiscent of dozens of his dazzling starts during the 2017-18 NHL season.

That was the season he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s top netminder. It was the season that garnered him a six-year, US$37-million contract.

Criticize Connor Hellebuyck for the junky performance he posted in last week’s season opener in Manhattan, or commend him for a pair of spectacular nights in the crease since then.

The Winnipeg Jets No. 1 goalie tunes out the chatter, anyway.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)</p>
<p>Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stares down Penguins forward Jake Guentzel.</p>
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(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stares down Penguins forward Jake Guentzel.

While the sample size is rather puny, Hellebuyck’s play between the pipes in victories over the Penguins on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and the Minnesota Wild on Thursday at Bell MTS Place was reminiscent of dozens of his dazzling starts during the 2017-18 NHL season.

That was the season he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s top netminder. It was the season that garnered him a six-year, US$37-million contract.

Hellebuyck’s only out to impress a small but critical group of onlookers — his employer, his teammates and the guy that stares right back at him in the mirror.

“I think staying confident is what makes a pro. The mind is the most important part of this game and I like to believe that I’m going to bring the right mindset every night so I can bring the same game every night,” he said Friday, following the Jets’ morning practice. “When the guys see that, they can trust me and they know I’m going to do everything I possibly can for them.”

Hellebuyck is expected to get his third consecutive start tonight as the Jets take on the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center at 6 p.m.

The Michigan product, in his fifth campaign in a Winnipeg jersey, surrendered five goals on 31 shots to open the regular season as the New York Rangers dumped the Jets 6-4. His rebound control was off, he had trouble with traffic in front and he seemed a fraction of a second slow on his reflexes.

Head coach Paul Maurice turned to backup Laurent Brossoit for games against the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders before going back to Hellebuyck against Sidney Crosby and the Pens. The result: a 4-1 victory and a 37-save effort from the masked man, followed by a 38-save night at home against the Central Division-rival Wild.

Hellebuyck said his last two outings represent the work he puts in to improve.

“I felt good right from the start, in camp, in pre-season, and I’ve just been building my game and I knew the results were there. It’s just a matter of a tweak here, a tweak there and I’m back to what I expect of myself,” he said. “What I would say is my battle is definitely ramped up right now and it gets better every single game. I expect that out of myself.

“I’ve been on the right side out of a lot of these, and the guys in front of me have helped a lot, too. They’ve been pushing guys out and giving me good lanes and I’m picking up on that. So, the chemistry is getting good.”

After posting a 44-11-9 mark with a 2.36 goals-against average and .924 save percentage the year the Jets soared to the Western Conference final, Hellebuyck was a model of inconsistency last season, going 34-23-3 with a 2.90 GAA and .913 save percentage. Yet, Maurice rarely drew attention to an off night by his goalie.

Hellebuyck said he continues to draw strength from the support of his coach and teammates, adding he refuses to allow his self-confidence to waver.

“That’s all I’ve been saying this entire time, is my game is right and I feel right. I’m continuing to grow and get better.

“I didn’t get the result I wanted in the first game, but there was no reason to panic,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t panicking. I can’t control everyone else panicking, but I certainly wasn’t.”

● ● ●

The Jets reassigned defenceman Sami Niku to the Manitoba Moose on Friday morning. He was expected to suit up for the American Hockey League squad Friday night and Saturday afternoon against the Toronto Marlies.

Niku, 23, made his 2019-20 regular-season debut for the Jets on Tuesday in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.

He began the season in the AHL, playing in two games during a short road trip to Texas.

Maurice said he didn’t have the Finnish blue-liner pencilled in for the game in Chicago and wanted him in some game action.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

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