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This article was published 9/3/2015 (1719 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ST. LOUIS — Admit it. In that moment in Saturday's game in Nashville when Michael Hutchinson was rolling on the ice in pain, you were scared. You should have been. No Hutch, no playoffs.
The rookie goaltender has become the story of the season. The Winnipeg Jets remain in contention for a playoff spot due to many reasons, but chief among them is the play of Hutchinson.
With a 20-8-5 mark and a .918 save percentage, Hutchinson's play has changed the Jets' fortunes.
'Nothing has been handed to him. He decreased the frequency of time between starts to the point where he's gotten this opportunity to be this good on a nightly basis'— Jets coach Paul Maurice, on Hutchinson
Very simply, the emergence of Hutchinson has been the key difference between this year's team and the three that have missed the playoffs since the team returned to Winnipeg. There have been improvements in a number of areas, but the play of Hutchinson has been the largest contributor to the team's improved goals-against numbers. Certainly the Jets have limited scoring chances against as a team, but when the opposition does get an opportunity, Hutchinson has provided the goaltending needed to consistently win in the NHL. He's not the saviour, but he most definitely is the saver they have not had in the past.
Jets coach Paul Maurice has yet to hand Hutchinson the label of No. 1 goalie, but his actions belie this omission. Six straight starts and 13 of the last 17 and a quote on Saturday night said it all.
"There was no question in my mind he was going back in (Saturday)," said Maurice, referring to the decision to play Hutchinson in what turned out to be a 3-1 win over the Nashville Predators despite the fact the coach had removed his goalie midway through the previous game.
Even when Hutchinson loses, he's still the de facto choice for the next game. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of a No. 1 goalie. When the Jets meet the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, it will be Hutchinson starting in goal. Book it.
'These games, the intensity and the competition, it's incredible. It's what you dream about and what you want to be a part of'— Michael Hutchinson
It will be Hutchinson the rest of the way but for situations deemed intolerable by the schedule. Backup Ondrej Pavelec will get his chances, but only when starting Hutchinson seems like an unreasonable prospect.
"Huge," said Maurice, asked how big a part of the Jets story Hutchinson is this year. "Even bigger if you go back to last year (when he played) in the East Coast league. He's earned it all. He got a game in the NHL last year because he was working so damn hard in practice. I had to put him in. That's what we're trying to learn here. I certainly didn't do it to him this year. His first game was against L.A. and I pulled him and his next treat was in Chicago on the back end of a back-to-back. Nothing has been handed to him. He decreased the frequency of time between starts to the point where he's gotten this opportunity to be this good on a nightly basis."
Maurice has placed his trust in Hutchinson. He's placed the fate of the Jets' season in Hutchinson. He's rearranged the organizational depth chart, and Hutchinson, with his $525,000 salary, is now at the top, giving the Jets strength where once there was weakness.
Winnipeg can now look at the goalie position and see a capable starter in the NHL, a developing phenom in the AHL and a top prospect still learning in junior. Rookie Connor Hellebuyck is second in the AHL with 26 wins and has a .928 save percentage, and is drawing comparisons to Cory Schneider during the early stages of his career.
Hutchinson was smiling late Saturday night after having allowed just one goal and besting Nashville's Pekka Rinne in a late-season game with lots riding on the result.
"This is a lot of fun. These are the games you want to be playing in," said Hutchinson. "I can remember playing in the Calder Cup (AHL) playoffs last year and how much fun it was. I just want to try and help this team get to the same place."
Hutchinson's work to this point has been impressive. But the next 16 games will determine whether he's a sidebar to another season on the outside or the image on the first run of Jets 2.0 playoff tickets. The Jets aren't a lock. Hutchinson will have to be consistently strong over the next month-and-a-bit to get his team over the top. He just might turn out to be the surprise of the NHL season.
Is that putting a lot of pressure on a young man with fewer than 50 NHL games on his record? Maybe. But he's fought to put himself in this position and he's happy to have the chance to keep fighting.
"These games, the intensity and the competition, it's incredible. It's what you dream about and what you want to be a part of," he said.
There is something pure in Hutchinson's enthusiasm. He seems to treat every day in the NHL like a gift. Every start like it might be his last, so he better enjoy it.
Maybe it will wear off. It usually does. Hutchinson, however, has already surprised us all. Repeatedly. Maybe he will again.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless
Updated on Monday, March 9, 2015 at 8:46 AM CDT: Replaces photo