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Hellebuyck comes up big in 4-2 victory over Sabres

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BUFFALO — Connor Hellebuyck followed up one of his toughest games of the seasons with one of his most tremendous. And, as he’s done so often in his career, carried the Winnipeg Jets to victory in the process.

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BUFFALO — Connor Hellebuyck followed up one of his toughest games of the seasons with one of his most tremendous. And, as he’s done so often in his career, carried the Winnipeg Jets to victory in the process.

A 39-save performance against the NHL’s highest-scoring team, the Buffalo Sabres, resulted in a 4-2 triumph on Thursday at KeyBank Center.

“He was outstanding. He was the difference maker,” said head coach Rick Bowness.

Connor Hellebuyck made 39 saves against the NHL’s highest-scoring team on Thursday. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / The Associated Press)

Winnipeg improves to 27-14-1, rebounding nicely after a five-game win streak was snapped in a 7-5 loss Tuesday in Detroit. In that game, Hellebuyck was beaten six times on just 22 shots, as every single chance the Red Wings had seemed to go in the net.

Not so with the Sabres, who peppered him with pucks but found a brick wall standing in their way. Or, more accurately, a former Vezina Trophy winner who is definitely in the conversation for some hardware this season.

“He just continues to show, even after a night like in Detroit, that his confidence never wavers,” said Jets forward Kyle Connor, a fellow whose breakaway goal with under 13 minutes to play in the game stood as the winner. “He comes right back out and plays one of his best games of the year.”

Karson Kuhlman, with his first goal as a member of the Jets, iced it with an empty-netter. Defencemen Dylan Samberg and Josh Morrissey scored earlier in the game. Victor Olofsson and Tyson Jost had the tallies for Buffalo, which falls to 20-18-2.

1) Talk about a momentum swing:

Buffalo came close to taking a 3-2 lead when some poor puck management gifted the Sabres a two-on-none just past the midway mark of the third period.

“It was a terrible play in the neutral zone,” said Bowness. “All we did there was feed the transition. When you turn it over like that, like we did, it’s usually a lot of confusion coming into the zone. So it started there.”

Jost, who had tied the game 2:50 into the final period, just missed another. Seconds later, Connor was streaking down the ice the other way, deking out Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to give Winnipeg the lead back.

“It was a wild sequence,” said Bowness.

Connor said he was surprised the rookie Sabres netminder was out as far as he was. He had pressured Buffalo defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who put the puck right on to the stick of Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg’s zone.

“I just gave him kind of a little fake shot and he froze pretty good. Backhand, forehand, lost an edge, but I had him so it worked out,” Connor said of his 21st goal, which also happened to be his team-leading eighth game-winner. “He kind of made an errant pass. In that scenario, I’m taking off. I know Nik’s finding me. That’s kind of how it worked out.”

Talk about clutch.

“In the third period, the game’s on the line, you get a little extra jump in your step. You want to be the difference maker,” said Connor. “You want to score that big goal. I think you could say that for a lot of guys in this room. I know I get up for that in close games. I don’t know, I wish I had a better answer for you, how that works out, but it seems like those are going in more often than not in the third period.”

2) And how about that spectacular last-minute save?

With Luukkonen out for an extra attacker, it looked like Jeff Skinner was about to tie the game. His wrap-around attempt went straight in the air, then fell into the legs of a sprawled-out Hellebuyck. Somehow, the puck didn’t cross the line.

“It was a good save, but you know what? I felt three or four guys right there battling with me. I had the utmost confidence,” said Hellebuyck. “I looked back and I caught a piece of it, knew where it was going, and knew exactly what to do. Good thing it stayed out. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little luck on your side.”

Hellebuyck, whose 21 wins trail only Boston’s Linus Ullmark, said he quickly put Tuesday’s stinker in his home state out of mind.

“This one, we came out and we all played hard. We got what we deserved,” said Hellebuyck.

3) Not so fast, says the head coach:

Bowness had a slightly different take than his goaltender.

“We played a whole lot better in Detroit and lost than we did tonight, so it evened out,” said the veteran bench boss. “The chances in Detroit, I think we had 28 chances to their 12, and nine and a half minutes in their zone, so the score wasn’t reflective of the game. Tonight, they outplayed us. That’s the most chances we’ve given up in a long time. Turnovers and poor coverage in our end. It evened out on this road trip because we played a lot better in Detroit than we did tonight.”

To be clear, Bowness wasn’t unhappy with the result, just some of the process.

“Tonight, we found a way to get that goal in the third, but we have to find a way to play smarter than that. There’s no sugarcoating it,” he said.

4) The penalty kill was outstanding, however:

Buffalo entered the game with the No. 2 unit in the NHL, led by Tage Thompson and Dahlin on the back end. Winnipeg gave them five opportunities, which sounds like a recipe for disaster, except the Jets killed off all five minors.

“Those guys are blocking everything, letting me see pucks, battling on rebounds. What more can you ask?” Hellebuyck said of the play in front of him.

Winnipeg had two power-play chances, coming up empty.

5) A new benchmark from the back end:

Samberg’s goal at 6:35 of the first period was notable. Not only did his wrister through a screen give the Jets a 1-0 lead, but it also marked the 24th time a defenceman has scored this season, matching the exact number of blue-line tallies over a full 82 games last season.

After Olofsson tied it at 12:02 of the second period, Morrissey scored No. 25 (his eighth) to restore the lead.

“Those guys have been phenomenal this year. Obviously, we know J-Mo, he’s taken his game to another level, so been fun to watch, but everybody back there,” said Connor.

6) The flu bug is making its way through the roster:

On Tuesday it was Kevin Stenlund and Ville Heinola being late scratches due to a virus. On Thursday, Morgan Barron was down and out. Stenlund had recovered enough to take his spot, while Heinola was held out. And then, during the game, forward Cole Perfetti started to feel ill. He came out late for the second period, then was ultimately shut down midway through the third.

Jets forward David Gustafsson was also scratched after suffering an upper-body injury against the Red Wings and has placed on injured reserve, meaning he can’t return until Tuesday at the earliest. Saku Maenalanen, who had missed the last 16 games with an upper-body injury, was activated earlier in the day and took his spot.

Up next: The Jets wrap up the three-game road trip on Friday in Pittsburgh, where a rested Sidney Crosby and company will be looking to pounce on a weary opponent.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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