Hellebuyck has playoff mindset
Jets workhorse goalie happy to carry heavy load as team fights for post-season berth
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The Winnipeg Jets are giving Connor Hellebuyck all he can handle these days.
The star netminder has started 14 of the last 17 contests and had just two nights off in March as the club clings to the second wild card-spot in the Western Conference playoff race. It’s well known Hellebuyck is a workhorse, so the frequency of his starts typically wouldn’t be as noteworthy.
Recently, however, it appears as though starting the eight-year pro has been a pre-requisite for the grounded Jets to have any shot at coming out on top. The club has struggled to score for much of their 8-10-2 stretch dating back to the all-star break and has had severe lapses in defence that have required Hellebuyck bail out his teammates time after time.
Hellebuyck appears unbothered by his workload, though. In fact, he’s seemed to embrace it with each outcome becoming more important than the last.
The Commerce, Mich., product has found a way to bring his best every night and consistently give his team a chance to win. Hellebuyck owns a 2.59 goals against average and .918 save percentage and, in many cases, has been the reason the club has come out with a win.
“It’s been good. I’ve always been a rhythm player and we manage my workload really well here. It’s all about what you do off the ice and how you’re feeling and how your mentals are, and I’ve done a good job of that,” said Hellebuyck, who did not skate with the team Wednesday as a part of a maintenance day.
“I feel like this whole year, we’ve managed my work really well. So now when needed, I can run. That being said, it all comes down to what’s between the ears, too. My brain is clear, I’m not overthinking things and it helps a lot.”
Hellebuyck admitted the increased workload will wear him down at times, but that it’s all in the name of capturing a playoff berth.
“It all depends on games. Certain games have more workloads and certain ices are harder to move around in, which makes it a little harder. But I feel good,” he said.
“I’m already viewing these games as playoff games. I’ve had the playoff mindset for a little while now and it’s no different. If we want to make playoffs, we have to be playing playoff hockey.”
There are two sides to this coin. Hellebuyck can’t start every game, and the Jets need to be mindful of giving backup David Rittich enough action to stay in rhythm when he’s called upon for a select few games down the home stretch.
Rittich has started 17 games this season, the most since 2019-20 when he played 48 contests with the Calgary Flames. He’s held the fort down in much of his action, too, boasting a 2.65 goals against average and .902 save percentage, and has allowed more than two goals in just three of his last six outings.
Rittich voiced his displeasure about how his small workload in Nashville last season left him out of sorts when his number was called in big moments. He says that’s not the case this year.
“No, I do not, because (Hellebuyck’s) doing a really good job and he keeps me on my toes. We work at the things we both think are necessary and it’s good to get to work on it,” Rittich said. “So I don’t see any similarities from last year, here.”
“I’m old enough to know what I have to do and how I have to do it. I know my last few games were not perfect. Obviously, I want a better result for myself and for our team, but it’s hockey. I still believe I can flip the coin when I’m going to be playing in the game.”
Rick Bowness said Hellebuyck will play Thursday night against the Anaheim Ducks, in what will be his fifth-straight start. The bench boss explained the importance of communication with his goaltender.
“I think everyone in this league, at this point, and in the position we’re in, is going to go with their No. 1 guy. It’s up to us to give him the days off like we did today and rest and monitor that very closely,” Bowness said. “If there’s a game where we feel he’s a little tired, we will make that decision. We haven’t seen that yet. And when we see that, then we will have to address it.
“Just take a look at April. We have a couple of breaks in April. That’s when we will be able to give him a really good rest. Take the big picture. Let’s get into April. The schedule is not nearly as heavy and he will get plenty of rest there.”
The NHL Players’ Association revealed its annual players poll Wednesday.
The Winnipeg Jets appeared three times in the responses from the 626-player questionnaire.
Canada Life Centre ranked third among arenas for having the best ice in the league, with 10.3 per cent of respondents siding with the Jets’ home. CLC trails Rogers Place in Edmonton (14. 7 per cent) and Montreal’s Bell Centre (35 per cent), which took the top honours for the fifth time.
Players agreed that Pierre-Luc Dubois has the fifth-best shoe game in the NHL. Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who was voted the most fashionable player in 2020-21, was once again recognized for his style, earning 9.1 per cent of the votes for his choice of footwear.
Hellebuyck placed fourth among all net minders for the goalie that players would want to have on their team if they needed to win one game. The Jets’ star goaltender earned 3.5 per cent of the votes, trailing Minnesota’s Marc-Andre Fleury (four per cent), the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin (4.8 per cent) and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who garnered a whopping 52.3 per cent of votes.
“I think that’s a little low,” Hellebuyck said with a laugh. “I feel like when push comes to shove, I’ve shown that I’m pretty good.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.
Updated on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 8:05 PM CDT: Updates day of Hellebuyck's practice
Updated on Thursday, March 23, 2023 4:48 PM CDT: Fixes typo