Connor Hellebuyck has never seen a puck he didn't think he could stop. He's as confident as they come, a trait that has served him well in becoming one of the best goaltenders on the planet.
And so it should come as no surprise that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is shrugging off widespread predictions from hockey pundits and fans that his Winnipeg Jets don't stand much of a chance against the heavily favoured Edmonton Oilers in their first-round playoff series that gets underway Wednesday.
"I try not to look at all of that stuff, but if you want to call us an underdog, go ahead. We’ll use that as energy," Hellebuyck said following Sunday's practice at Bell MTS Place. "Any little advantage that we can get right now, we’re going to take. That’s what it takes in the playoffs. Anything. The last puck, the last tip, the last block, every little play is going to matter."
Yes, recent history suggests the Jets likely need all the help they can get, having gone just 2-7-0 against the Oilers this season. Hellebuyck appeared in seven of those games, going 2-5-0 with a 3.90 goals-against-average and .877 save percentage. Against the other five Canadians teams, Hellebuyck was 22-12-3 with a sparkling 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage.
In other words, he was a lot like his teammates in being unable to shut down Connor McDavid and company. What makes anyone think that can be reversed now that the stakes are even higher? The pressure is about to be ramped up on Hellebuyck, who insists he's ready for the challenge and motivated by the desire to eventually add a Stanley Cup to his trophy case.
"Honestly, it’s all that I think about. It’s all I’ve got left to go for," said Hellebuyck.
"Being with this group of guys, the way that we’ve grown together the last couple of years, there’s no better team that I would want to celebrate this with. I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work, but I’m really excited for it because once you get to the end of it, you can look back and really cherish all of those hard games, those tiny moments that don’t seem like much at the time but are big moments. I’m looking forward to those tiny, big moments."
There's no question Hellebuyck's moxie rubs off on his teammates. And in the playoffs, where goaltending is often the difference between success and failure, the Jets believe they have a marked advantage every time the puck drops.
"Obviously Helly’s a very confident guy. He’s always been a confident guy. From the first day I met him, he just has that confident presence which I think is such a great thing to have in your goaltender. I think it just sort of radiates out to the team. Love to hear that from him. Love to see that confidence level that he always has," defenceman Josh Morrissey said Sunday.
"He gives us a chance every night. That’s kind of been our MO here that last handful of years, regardless of how bad we could throw a stinker out there, we’ve got a chance with 37 in the net. So that’s where our confidence starts. He’s a very confident guy in his game and he gives us a ton of confidence back there," added captain Blake Wheeler.
Hellebuyck is entering the post-season on a high note, having won his last two regular-season starts and three of the four games he's played in May. He gave up just five goals in those four contests and recorded a pair of shutouts, stopping 109 of 114 shots he faced. This, after a tough stretch in April which included six straight defeats, and seven of eight, as his club endured the longest losing streak in Paul Maurice's tenure behind the bench.
"The biggest thing I’ve learned is that he stays very even-keeled no matter what. When he’s playing great he stays the same way as when he maybe lets in a few soft ones and gets pulled. Like Josh said, he’s got that confidence that kind of trickles down to our whole team. Playing in front of him is a lot of fun. You know he’s there to have your back," said defenceman Dylan DeMelo.
"With Helly, you just realize how good he really is. Just a top, top goalie in this league and in the world. We’re very lucky to have him."
Staring down Hellebuyck at the other end of the ice will be 39-year-old Mike Smith, who turned back the clock this season with a terrific 21-6-2 record, 2.31 GAA and .923 SV%. He won his last four starts against the Jets this year, surrendering just five goals combined.
"This is a team game and there are a lot of guys in front of me that do a lot of great things. You’ve got to play and chances are going to be different at both ends and we’re looking to come out on top of that," Hellebuyck said of the head-to-head battle and trying to find another level for the most exciting time of the year.
"When I think back (to previous playoffs), I just think of how easy energy was to come by, especially early in a series when you get those nerves going and get those emotions going. Everyone is buzzing. Everyone’s bringing their A-plus game so it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun to play that style of hockey. It’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be fun," he said.
Smith is arguably the best goalie in the league at handling the puck, giving the Oilers an unofficial third defenceman to handle dump-ins and rim attempts. That can make it difficult to get sustained offensive zone time.
"You can't be casual about it or it's going to be a real problem for you," said Maurice.
Still, when it comes to the most important part of the job -- stopping pucks -- the Jets believe they are backed by the very best. And if they are going to defy the odds and get by the Oilers, they're going to need their masked man to play a pivotal role.
"Those guys have a great impact on that idea of how you go into that first game, that excitement to play, that positive belief in themselves as individuals. The guy that plays the most minutes is the most important guy. He’s our 60-minute guy. He’s excited and he’s obviously incredibly talented and gifted and he’s proved that. We’d fed off that a great deal," said Maurice.
"There's some Stanley Cup champions where maybe their goaltender doesn't get mentioned because their team's so powerful up front. But in maybe all of those playoff series that you see... I've always thought that the guy that's holding the Stanley Cup that's wearing goalie pads, that's the Conn Smythe winner. If you win the Stanley Cup, at some point, you have to have been the most important player for that team."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.