Hellebuyck the key to Jets success Stellar goaltending the difference on road trip as offence struggles to find the net
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2022 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
VEGAS, Nevada – The Winnipeg Jets returned home from a three-game road trip sharing the lead with the Dallas Stars for top spot in the Central Division.
A pair of victories over the L.A. Kings and Arizona Coyotes on Thursday and Friday, followed by an overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday, have the Jets sitting at a 5-3-1 record through nine games. Winnipeg will open November with three home games played over a comfortable eight-day stretch, beginning with the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night.
But before we look too far ahead, let’s take a look back, with five takeaways from the club’s recent road trip.
1) By the most important measure, that being points in the standings, the Jets had a successful trip. They earned five of a possible six points, which is particularly notable given they travelled to the Pacific time zone and were playing three games over four nights.
But while their place atop the division might make it easy to dismiss any warts in their play, if the Jets proved anything these last three games it’s that they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. And while growing pains were inevitable with the implementation of new systems under head coach Rick Bowness and his staff, Winnipeg did not look much like the structured, defensively minded team it’s hoping to become.
The most common theme on the trip were horrible starts, which certainly didn’t help the Jets stay disciplined in executing their new assignments. Winnipeg started slow in all three games, and were particularly bad against the Kings and Golden Knights, even though it trailed by the greatest margin against the Coyotes, falling behind 2-0 through 20 minutes.
Getting off to a better start was the message from coaches and players after leaving L.A. and it was once again the main talking point heading into Vegas, only for the Jets to come out flat again in Sin City. So while the message was being delivered, it obviously wasn’t being received, and it’s unclear what to truly make of that at this point.
2) If you’re wondering how the Jets have been able to stay in the fight in the Central despite having a power play and penalty kill in the bottom half of the NHL, ranked 26th and 18th, respectively; have struggled to get consistent scoring from their top-six forwards; have been without Bowness (COVID-19) and speedy winger Nikolaj Ehlers (undisclosed injury) for a majority of the season; as well as the aforementioned slow starts, look no further than the play of goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck has been stellar all year, but just how much his play is a direct correlation to the Jets overall success was never more evident than what was witnessed in his last two starts. Not to ignore backup David Rittich, who played admirably in the win over the Coyotes, but Winnipeg doesn’t have a chance against the Kings and Golden Knights if not for Hellebuyck’s incredible performances.
He finished with 40 saves against L.A. and 46 against Vegas, with neither one of those nights being easy, as Hellebuyck was forced to come up big on several quality scoring chances. Bowness said it earlier in the year and associate coach Scott Arniel echoed it over the trip, that the club’s new defensive systems are designed to take pressure off Hellebuyck, which clearly hasn’t been the case.
Hellebuyck is always thoughtful in his post-game media availabilities, and you could hear the frustration in his words after Sunday’s loss. Whether it was because he felt he could have done a better job on Jack Eichel’s OT-winner or was frustrated with the play in front of him, or both, the Jets need to find a way to make life easier for their best player.
3) Better run support would certainly help. And improvements in two particular areas would go a long way in generating more goals.
The first is the power play, which has been ineffective all season and was again uninspiring over the road trip. The Jets went 2-for-11 on the man-advantage, with both goals against the Kings, including one into an empty net after L.A. was assessed a penalty late and pulled their goalie in their bid for a comeback.
The Free Press asked assistant coach Brad Lauer, who runs the PP, what’s been plaguing the unit, to which Lauer lamented a lack of motion from his skaters and a need to increase shots on net. The Jets averaged 1.5 shots a power play the last three games, giving up two shots the other way, both the result of breakaways that were turned aside by Rittich. The Jets have four total goals on 30 trips to the man-advantage this year.
While we’re on the topic of special teams, the penalty kill played well. The Jets allowed one goal on nine trips to the PK, while Adam Lowry got one the other way, scoring a critical shorthanded marker that stopped the bleeding against the Kings and kicked started the comeback.
4) The second is the lack of scoring from star winger Kyle Connor, who has just one empty-net goal through nine games. That’s a tough look when you consider Connor was being projected by league pundits to score as many as 50 goals, a high but reasonable prediction given he’s coming off a 2021-22 campaign where he notched 47.
It’s hard to be critical of Connor given his success over his NHL career, with an impressive 179 goals over 393 regular-season games, and it’s not like he hasn’t been trying. He led the team over the road trip in shots (13) and shot attempts (20) but just hasn’t found his usual touch around the net.
When the Jets shook up their top two forward lines, swapping centremen Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the first thing Arniel credit for the change was an attempt to get Connor going, before citing other reasons. There’s no doubt it’s frustrating for Connor and the Jets, but it’s also too early into the season to start reaching for the panic button.
What’s helped is the Jets are getting secondary scoring from deeper down the depth chart, with Lowry scoring twice over the road trip and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby providing the game-winner against the Kings.
5) Arniel provided a few updates on the team after the loss to Vegas.
While he didn’t outright confirm an immediate return for Bowness, it’s sounding like his battle with the coronavirus is coming to an end. “His one-word answer is ‘fine. I’m fine. That’s all I’m getting from him and that’s all he’s giving. I think he’ll be back this week. He’ll be back,” Arniel said.
As for Ehlers, the original plan for him to try skating over the road trip never came to fruition and Arniel said he still needs to go through “heavier” off-ice workouts, adding: “he’s still not there yet.” Defenceman Logan Stanley, who was seen in a walking boot after taking a shot off the foot in the win over St. Louis, has also yet to return to the ice and will be further evaluated in Winnipeg.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Tuesday, November 1, 2022 8:51 AM CDT: Adds related posts.