ANALYSIS: Hellebuyck rounding back into form for Winnipeg Jets

There was Connor Hellebuyck, staring longingly into his empty glove, downright dumbfounded that the shot had somehow escaped his grasp.

It didn’t matter to the Winnipeg Jets goaltender that this wrister from Los Angeles Kings forward Carl Grundstrom basically beat him bar down.

In Hellebuyck’s mind, it was a shot he felt he should have stopped and another glimpse into the mentality that has allowed him to grow into one of the best netminders in the NHL over the last several years.

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And after the Jets started this season-long seven-game homestand with a feel-good story between the pipes in the form of backup Eric Comrie taking the net and answering some questions about his readiness for the NHL level, it was Hellebuyck’s ability to return to the crease and serve notice that he’s back that served as an exclamation point.

There was no better example of Hellebuyck being right back in the zone than Tuesday night, when the Jets capped the 5-1-1 homestand with a decisive 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

Although the Jets were full value for their defensive play and built a comfortable four-goal cushion through 40 minutes of work, Hellebuyck was dialled in and needed to be, finishing with 32 saves.

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Hellebuyck was technically sound and made a bunch of difficult saves look routine, which is another one of his calling cards.

The only two goals to beat him were off the stick of Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (who is up to a league-leading 17 on the campaign), both of which came on the power play.

One of those goals came on a two-man advantage and both were perfect passes from Connor McDavid.

In his post-game session with reporters on Tuesday, Hellebuyck made it known that he felt he could have made both saves.

“I know the goal, he fanned on it and it still goes in. It sucks but that’s how I get beat these days,” said Hellebuyck, noting he felt the other should have been disallowed for what he felt was goalie interference on Jesse Puljujarvi.

Once the Oilers had made things interesting and trimmed the Jets lead to two goals early in the third, that’s when Hellebuyck was at his very best, turning aside a glorious chance from the slot from Puljujarvi — which helped settle his teammates down.

Winnipeg Jets' Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) scores on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) during the second period of NHL action in Winnipeg, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

Winnipeg Jets' Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) scores on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) during the second period of NHL action in Winnipeg, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

“They try that play quite a bit, go around the net and put it backdoor side, so I was aware, I got my eyes on it. He got in tight and all I had to do was smother his area. He kind of leaned into it and it was a quick read for me,” said Hellebuyck.

“It’s more of a read-type thing. So, when I see what side he’s going to, there’s only so many holes that he can hit. I smother every hole that he can hit, if that makes sense.”

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After allowing 14 goals through the first three games of the season as the Jets opened up 0-2-1, Hellebuyck has gone 6-0-2 and allowed 17 markers, while surrendering two goals or fewer in six of those eight starts.

That’s elite-level stuff.

With a .914 save percentage and goals-against average of 2.79, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

The raw numbers are not yet Vezina-like, though they’re trending in a direction Hellebuyck will like.

A deeper dive will show you Hellebuyck’s five-on-five save percentage for the season is .942. What that tells you is that the Jets’ struggles on the penalty kill have dramatically impacted Hellebuyck’s stat line.

It’s important to remember that he allowed only seven goals and posted a save percentage of .931 or better in each of his four starts during this homestand.

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There’s no doubt whatsoever that Hellebuyck didn’t like the goal from St. Louis Blues forward Pavel Buchnevich that snuck between his pads last week, but here’s the thing — as he’s done so many times over the course of his career, he didn’t let it linger or derail his outing.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

“In Connor’s time here, if he had one he didn’t like, that wasn’t the start of a cascade usually,” said head coach Paul Maurice.

“He will tell you that he wants all of them. There are some that he wants that you’re going ‘come on man, let it go.’ He legitimately thinks he should have both of those last game (against the Kings). The rest of his work is the way he works.

“That’s a confidence you get to build as a team when you play in front of an elite goaltender at a high number of games. He’s a durable man.”

Comrie should be back in goal on Friday against the Vancouver Canucks, but Hellebuyck is clearly back in a rhythm and set to make a fifth consecutive start in Thursday’s rematch with the Oilers.

Given how the Jets seem to be trending in regards to building their identity and improving their defensive structure, having Hellebuyck rounding into form is something that should keep the Jets right in the thick of this tight race for top spot in the Western Conference.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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