December 10, 2019

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Hellebuyck demystifies dark art of goaltending

Jets 'keeper keeps turning in superb outings

Connor Hellebuyck has a way of giving a complex answer to a simple question.

The Winnipeg Jets goaltender has a language all his own, and the systematic approach with which he delivers his words, while endearing, takes some extra effort by the inquisitor to clarify the message.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Canucks forward Brandon Sutter barges into Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s crease. Hellebuyck is starting to find his form this season.</p></p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canucks forward Brandon Sutter barges into Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s crease. Hellebuyck is starting to find his form this season.

"The guys in front of me have done a really good job of allowing me to see pucks, which is huge. This summer, I worked really hard at getting some depth in my game and then I found my trigger. I got balance again," Hellebuyck said Saturday afternoon, less than a full day after yet another superb performance between the pipes. He turned aside 32 shots as the Jets dumped the visiting Vancouver Canucks 4-1.

Depth. Trigger. Balance. Huh?

'I found my trigger. I got balance again... I don't want to give my secrets away'— Connor Hellebuyck speaks in goalie tongue

"My balance is good, my feel is good, my depth is good, so I’m just kind of letting things fall into place. When I square up on a puck, I know where my hands are and how I can move, so I’m letting the puck come to me and reacting to it," he said. "It feels so smooth and I feel square on every single puck now, which is just adding confidence.

"One thing leads into another, and then your mind’s just taking over and it’s almost not even goaltending. You’re just going through the actions because it’s happening so smoothly."

Basically, when he’s playing his best, he’s cruising on autopilot. And the statistical story suggests he’s encountered some turbulence in just two of his 13 starts during the 2019-20 NHL season. Hellebuyck is 7-5-1 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, tied for fourth-best in the NHL prior to Saturday’s 11-game slate.

Blemishes were a sub-par assignment in a season-opening 6-4 defeat to the host New York Rangers and a shaky effort Oct. 29 in Anaheim (five goals on 19 shots) that resulted in head coach Paul Maurice replacing him with Laurent Brossoit in the second period of a 7-4 loss.

In four of his past five games, he’s had a save percentage above .960. Indeed, the 26-year-old product of Commerce, Mich., is in a groove reminiscent of the consistent work he put in two years ago when he was in Vezina-calibre form.

"I think he’s been awesome. He’s won us some games single-handedly, he’s given us a chance to be in a lot of games and he’s confident in the net," Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey said. "He looks like a guy who’s one year older, one more year going into his prime, confident in his abilities. He worked hard during the summer, he’s in great shape, he works hard in practice, so we’re definitely really confident having him in the net."

Maurice indicated Saturday following practice that he’ll turn to his No. 1 masked man once again when the Dallas Stars visit Bell MTS Place.

The Winnipeg bench boss said Hellebuyck has been rock-solid facing shooters with clean looks, fights through traffic to make stops and smother loose pucks and has been tidy at controlling his rebounds.

"There’s a calm in his game, for sure. What stands out is how hard he’s fighting to find the puck through traffic. I don’t like to comment too much technically as I don’t understand what goalies do, just whether they stop it or not. But I know he’s worked hard at finding the pucks," Maurice said. "A lot of it is experience, no different than any other player. The NHL game is different, and now he’s in that fourth full year of understanding that No. 1 role and what it takes to stay sharp and how hard you’ve got to compete in the crease every night to find those pucks."

After a sensational 2017-18 campaign (44-11-9, six shutouts, 2.36 GAA, .924 save percentage), Hellebuyck’s numbers dipped last season and the eye test alone showed he struggled at times. He finished 34-23-3 (2.90 GAA, .913 S%).

The 6-4, 210-pound netminder was asked to clarify "a trigger point."

"I mean I don’t want to give my secrets away, but it helps my upper body stay balanced with my lower body. They’re not connected and they both can react and do what they need to do to get to the spots," he said, in Helle-speak.

But the fifth-round pick of the 2012 NHL entry draft, now in the second season of a six-year, US$37-million contract, was crystal clear about his priorities on the ice.

"Anyone would be lying if they (said) they didn’t look at their stats. Stats are fun, as long as you don’t use it in the wrong way, as long as you don’t let it control your game. It’s fun to put a little goal for yourself and continue to build and continue to get better and put more stats up," Hellebuyck said. "But, that being said, the most important one is wins and that’s the only one I care about and that’s the only one this team cares about."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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