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EDMONTON — As Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk committed his first act of charity in the opening minute of Wednesday’s game — a puck directly onto the stick of Vancouver’s J.T. Miller, who blasted the shot wide — I immediately wondered what was going through Connor Hellebuyck’s mind.
"C’mon guys. Really? Four-and-a-half months away and we didn’t learn ANYTHING?" he might have been muttering to himself.
Another generous freebie came just a few seconds later, this time right to the tape of Canucks blue-liner Chris Tanev. Hellebuyck easily turned away the scoring attempt, his first of what would be 37 saves on this night.
"OK seriously guys, this isn’t funny anymore. A little help here?"
Hellebuyck, of course, wouldn’t say any such thing. He’s a consummate pro and a total team guy. But who could blame the Vezina Trophy finalist if he was suddenly having flashbacks to the countless times this past season he’s been forced to put out five-alarm fires caused by his mistake-prone teammates.
Fortunately for the Jets, they seemed to work the early kinks out of their system en route to a 4-1 victory over Vancouver, following the type of script that has become their calling card: A slow start, a red-hot goalie and some timely scoring. Rinse and repeat.
This was Winnipeg’s lone exhibition tune-up prior to facing off against Calgary in a best-of-five qualifying series beginning Saturday night here in the hockey hub of Edmonton. And 14 total giveaways on the night, including an eye-popping five by Pionk, provided an all-too-familiar reminder that as Hellebuyck goes, so do the Jets.
This is a guy, after all, who faced more high-danger scoring chances than any other NHL goaltender. By a mile.
If the first game since mid-March taught us anything, it’s that Hellebuyck seems rested, ready and eager for the challenge ahead. Jets captain Blake Wheeler said it "looks like he hasn’t missed a beat." Coach Paul Maurice described his masked marvel as looking "really, really strong." The rest of the NHL likely said ‘Tell us something we don’t already know."
In a perfect world, the Jets wouldn’t need Hellebuyck to be the hero every game. But when old habits die hard, as they did at times Wednesday night, it’s nice to know one of the best in the game can bail you out.
To be fair, there were some promising developments on Wednesday that show this team can be more than a one-trick pony.
Let’s start with speedy, skilled forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who impressed during the two-week summer camp in Winnipeg and scored what would prove to be the game-winner against the Canucks. It’s been well-documented that the man known simply as "Fly" has yet to light the lamp in 21 career playoff contests. Naturally, I asked Maurice if this could be a sign he’s ready to shed the monkey off his back.
Much to my surprise, the veteran bench boss made a rather bold prediction.
"I think Nikky is scoring in the playoffs," said Maurice. "It’s a five-game series, so there’s not a lot of time to do it. But his game has changed this year, he’s harder on pucks, he drives the net, he’s competing at a different level than he ever has before, so I think he’s a goal scorer in the playoffs for sure."
The Jets got a bit of a scare when Ehlers left the game midway through the third period after getting tangled up with Vancouver’s Adam Gaudette and didn’t return, appearing to be limping his way back to the room. Maurice called it "100 per cent precautionary" and just a minor flare-up of an issue that is not expected to keep him off the ice for Friday’s practice. (The Jets had Thursday off).
Another positive sign was getting some unexpected depth scoring, which is the key to any successful playoff run. Defencemen Tucker Poolman and Dmitry Kulikov had six goals in 108 combined regular-season games, yet both managed to beat Vancouver started Jacob Markstrom.
Pionk’s somewhat out-of-character tough night aside, the blue-line has made big strides since training camp last fall and are far more active in both ends of the rink. The main priority is keeping life simple for Hellebuyck, but a little offence here and there is also welcome.
So is some physicality, which Nathan Beaulieu dished out with a huge hip-check on Canucks centre Zack MacEwen. While there wasn’t a whole lot of hitting in this one, with players naturally wanting to avoid injury in what was basically a dress rehearsal, the Jets will be looking for more of that grit once they go to battle against the Flames.
Jack Roslovic, described by his coach as one of the fittest players on the team, was moving well on the third line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp and made a nice play to set up Kulikov’s tally.
That’s big, especially on nights like Wednesday where the top trio of Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor are fairly quiet, save for an empty-net goal in the final minute. The Jets will also want to see more from Patrik Laine, whose lone shot of the game set up Ehlers’ rebound goal.
Still, this was more about the process rather than the end result, and the big takeaway here was the stellar play of Hellebuyck. A word of warning to the rest of the league -- he absolutely loves the empty-arena set-up inside Rogers Place.
"I kind of like the colour of it all. I really like San Jose’s barn, the Shark Tank, and it kind of reminded me of that," Hellebuyck said following the game.
Ah yes, the SAP Center in northern California, which I’m pretty sure Hellebuyck now legally owns after his two performances there this past season. First came his scintillating 51-save effort in a 3-2 victory last Nov. 1, followed by a 32-save effort in a 5-1 triumph on Nov. 27.
Going forward, the Jets must focus on cutting down the "free pizzas", to borrow a popular phrase from former coach Claude Noel. But when they inevitably do get served up, it’s nice to have a puck-hungry goaltender who swallows up just about everything that comes his way.
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