Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck says he has just one thing planned for an encore — guiding Winnipeg to the 2021 NHL championship.
The Jets’ human barricade was having a fine start to the abbreviated NHL season but has cranked up the efficiency dial over the last month. His timing is impeccable as Winnipeg enters the stretch run to the post-season and looks to enhance its standing in the North Division.
The Jets meet the Canadiens Thursday in Montreal, the first of five consecutive contests in eastern Canada. Game time is 6 p.m.
"The Stanley Cup now, honestly. Everything up to this point is building for playoffs," Hellebuyck, named the league’s top netminder during the 2019-20 campaign, said following Wednesday’s practice. "I don’t care how we make playoffs... (just) getting in the playoffs and anyone’s got a chance. Once you get there, anyone’s got a chance.
"For me, personally, I just want to give my team a chance to win every single night, get into a playoff spot and then battle from there."
Hellebuyck sounds like he’d accept every assignment that remains on the calendar for the Jets, currently 23-13-3 and in second spot in the division (prior to Wednesday’s action). Winnipeg has 17 games left on the schedule, including a couple of makeup games against the Vancouver Canucks.
But he’s already been one of the busiest starters in the NHL, with 31 starts (tied for first with Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche). He’s faced the most rubber (957 shots) of any masked man and turned aside the highest number of shots (879), while posting an 18-10-3 record, 2.54 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
In his last dozen outings he’s been razor-sharp, going 7-3-2 with a 2.25 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Hellebuyck, who turns 28 next month, said he’s identified steady improvement in his crease operations since the season began in January.
"I felt like this whole year my game’s been ramping up. I’ve been getting better and better and better. It’s not like my game’s changed a whole lot," said Hellebuyck. "I think my puck luck’s a little bit better and the team’s been playing great in front of me. We’ve gotten on a bit of a roll, and in this league you need that. You need to get on a roll and hang on to it."
Jets centre Mark Scheifele admitted there’s rarely a hint of imperfection when Hellebuyck’s between the pipes.
"He’s fantastic, obviously. He’s a Vezina Trophy winner for a reason. We’re lucky to have him. He’s calm in the net. He brings that confidence," said Scheifele, the squad’s top point producer (15G, 30A). "When you have that confidence behind you, it helps you so much, helps the whole team so much to have the goaltenders we have backstopping us. They give us a chance to win every single night. We’re very, very lucky to have him."
Scheifele’s recent work at the faceoff dot has been much improved, and he heaps credit on a veteran teammate for aiding the cause.
Fourth-line centre Nate Thompson offered a bit of a tutorial a few weeks ago at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, and since then Scheifele’s found far more success on puck drops than he was having earlier in the year.
"Me and him had a really, really good conversation in Toronto, actually, about faceoffs. We worked on some things, we talked about some things, and ever since then his input and his help has helped so much. And honestly I’m very, very thankful to have him. He gave me a lot of good tips." said the 28-year-old centre from Kitchener, Ont.
During the first 25 games of the season, Scheifele posted only nine games with a higher faceoff-win percentage than his opponents. In fact, in February he was schooled in eight of 12 outings.
But in his last 14 games (including the second of two against the Maple Leafs) he won more draws than he lost 11 times. And he’s on a roll right now, winning 56 of his last 83 draws (67.4 per cent) in his last six contests.
"(Thompson) is a veteran in this league. He’s a league-renowned faceoff guy and he always has been. So, I’m going to give him the credit. He’s the one who helped me. I’m definitely happy for the advice that he gave me," he said.
Scheifele’s a star performer in a hockey-crazed Canadian market, but he hinted (with tongue firmly planted in his cheek) that down the road he’ll be calling the shots for an NHL franchise.
He was first asked Wednesday whether or not — with the trade deadline fast approaching (Monday, April 12) — Winnipeg is a destination of choice for players possibly on the move.
"You would like to think that guys would want to play on a good team and play on a fun team and play with some good players. I like to think we have that on our team, up and down the lineup. Goaltenders, defence, forwards. You come to the Winnipeg Jets and you get to play with some pretty fantastic players and you get to play some fun hockey, which I think is very valuable in a lot of guys’ eyes," he said.
He was then asked to gauge the buzz around the team regarding the annual player swap.
"Honestly, it feels so weird this year with COVID. I feel like it really hasn’t been talked about as much. It’s kind of funky with the quarantine and all of that stuff. No one really knows what to expect. I’m sure this is going to be some movement and I’m sure there is going to be some exciting things happen all around the league," said Scheifele.
"All you can do is focus on the games that we have. We have some pretty big games coming up against some good opponents. All we’ve got to focus on is our game and our team and whatever happens, happens. I’ll be making those moves later in my life, on the GM side," he added, just as a virtual meeting with reporters was about to conclude. "Don’t cut me off, Greger."
That’s Jets manager of hockey communications, Greger Buer, the man on the Zoom controls.
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