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HELSINKI — Connor Hellebuyck is enjoying a visit to the Finnish capital city and has wandered some of the twisting cobblestone paths in search of its many sights — a well-timed distraction from the outcomes of his most recent NHL starts and the mediocre stats that accompany them.
By his own admission, the Winnipeg netminder — who emerged last season as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL — hasn’t had a banner beginning to the 2018-19 campaign. In nine opportunities to guard the Jets net, Hellebuyck has posted a 4-4-1 record, a 3.00 goals-against average and .907 save percentage.
Those aren’t numbers that warrant a 911 response, but they’re not what Jets fans were accustomed to seeing from the 25 year old during a breakout 2017-18 season.
Most importantly, they don’t resemble the body of work the Michigan-born goaltender, who dropped his last two starts, demands of himself.
“I thought I started very well and just recently I’ve had a couple of mistakes that have cost me,” Hellebuyck said following Winnipeg’s morning practice Tuesday at 13,400-seat Hartwall Arena in Helsinki.
“I can’t let that get on me, I can’t get down because I know it’s just part of those ups and downs. My numbers aren’t exactly where I want them to be, but I’m working hard and I know they’re going to come around. The guys in front of me have been great, and all I can do is work hard and be there when I’m needed.
“Coming here certainly changes everything. So, I guess it does let us get away and forget what happened, and just continue to build and work hard.”
His creasemate, Laurent Brossoit, has been sensational in backup duty, prevailing in all three of his starts thus far, posting a 1.67 GAA and .957 save percentage. In his first two outings, Carolina and Arizona both directed north of 40 shots at him.
The suggestion a goalie controversy has followed the Jets 6,700 kilometres to Helsinki is absurd, yet it creates an interesting situation for head coach Paul Maurice and how he deploys Hellebuyck and Brossoit in back-to-back contests against the Florida Panthers (2-4-3) Thursday and Friday in the NHL’s Global Series.
In a meeting with a large contingent of visiting North American reporters and Finnish media Maurice, whose team (7-4-1) is third in the Central Division, wouldn’t disclose who plays when this week.
“In some ways, this is a light schedule, right? I know we’ve played 12 (games) but we played six straight at home, we’ve got two games here but we’ve got nine days built around it were we don’t play. So, you’re stuck in the middle of running Connor, which is probably what he needs to get back to happy,” Maurice explained.
“But you also know that Laurent’s got to go in, and his play’s been so good. So I’m not worried about it. I’m also not going to work real, real hard to fix it. I’m going to leave the back-to-back this weekend kind of open. Then when we get back we’ll get into a normal schedule.”
Maurice took a strategical approach with his goaltenders the last three games, giving the nod to Hellebuyck twice in four nights against the offensive superpower Toronto Maple Leafs.
And contrary to Hellebuyck’s earlier remarks, his teammates had moments where they weren’t particularly sound in front of, or behind him.
The visiting Leafs pumped in three goals before the game was half-over last Wednesday, although the Jets’ delinquence in their own end forced him to try making some acrobatic saves he just couldn’t pull off. He finished the night blocking 30 of 34 shots.
On Saturday, Winnipeg executed its A-game for the better part of 47 minutes to build up a 2-0 lead, and Hellebuyck stopped the first 22 shots he faced, but the Leafs stormed back with three goals in the final period, the first two resulting from defensive breakdowns.
Jets blue-liner Josh Morrissey lost a puck race to the back wall to Mitch Marner, who fed Nazem Kadri for his second goal of the season at 6:33 on a rapid release that beat Hellebuyck high to the blocker side. Marner then jumped on a Dustin Byfuglien giveaway behind the net and passed to Jake Gardiner for the tying goal at 16:49.
And just 26 seconds later, John Tavares won a battle with Mark Scheifele at the side of the net and slid the puck to Kasperi Kapanen, who fired the winner on a shot most observers likely expected a Vezina Trophy candidate to turn aside. Hellebuyck was on one knee, leaning hard against the left post, but Kapanen shoehorned the puck through a miniscule gap above the goalie’s shoulder.
Hellebuyck, who signed a six-year, US$37-million contract (average annual value of $6.167 million) in mid-July, pleaded not guilty on sneaky clincher.
“I think that’s some luck,” he said. “I don’t even think it was a good shot. I think it got ramped up a stick and it hits the side of my helmet.”
It’s worth giving a 44-game winner — a mark that broke Tom Barrasso’s record for most victories by an American-born goaltender — the benefit of the doubt, particularly just a month into the season. On a much larger sample size, his save percentage jumped from .907 in 2016-17 to .924 a year ago, fifth-best in the NHL. He also had six shutouts.
But shoring up his play sooner rather than later will be paramount for a club hoping to stick with the league’s elite, and Maurice noted Hellebuyck will receive the lion’s share of work down the stretch.
“I know in March (Hellebuyck’s) not coming out of the net a whole lot, so I know the day where he plays the rhythm that he wants will be there for him,” 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).