March 22, 2019

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Practice does little for Hellebuyck's mood after stunning loss

One puck got by Connor Hellebuyck early at Winnipeg Jets practice Wednesday, then another and then another. Suddenly, down came his goalie stick — like a guy splitting firewood — sheared in half when it made contact with the cross bar.

In that moment, Hellebuyck — whose sticks are manufactured by True — showed some honest-to-goodness frustration and anger, the kind of outburst not normally associated with the composed, restrained Jets netminder.

Out of character, indeed, but authentic as heck.

“I don’t like getting scored on. And I don’t like losing games, so let out a little anger, show a little emotion, show that I care," he said afterward.

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One puck got by Connor Hellebuyck early at Winnipeg Jets practice Wednesday, then another and then another. Suddenly, down came his goalie stick — like a guy splitting firewood — sheared in half when it made contact with the cross bar.

In that moment, Hellebuyck — whose sticks are manufactured by True — showed some honest-to-goodness frustration and anger, the kind of outburst not normally associated with the composed, restrained Jets netminder.

Out of character, indeed, but authentic as heck.

"I don’t like getting scored on. And I don’t like losing games, so let out a little anger, show a little emotion, show that I care," he said afterward.

Some residual irritation from Tuesday night, perhaps?

"Not necessarily. It was more that I got beat on a couple of shots, and I don’t like that," he said, still referring to a couple of bullet drives from Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele that bounced off the twine behind him.

Hellebuyck didn't speak after Winnipeg fell 5-4 to the San Jose Sharks Tuesday at Bell MTS Place, the team's second consecutive loss and a difficult one to accept because the decisive goal by Joe Pavelski — coming with just four seconds left in regulation — was entirely preventable, well before the puck got anywhere near his net.

A risky pass attempt across the middle in the Sharks' zone by winger Nikolaj Ehlers was broken up by defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, springing Timo Meier and Pavelski on a two-on-one break. Pavelski had the final touch, slipping in his 37th goal of the season.

"It was kind of a kick in the (sensitive anatomical area), losing with a few seconds left. It’s hard to swallow," he said. "It’s one of those games where you have to bottle it up and throw it away, because it’s not going to happen very often. You don’t want that to linger."

To suggest Hellebuyck should have made that save isn't sensible. But to assess his overall performance over the previous 59 minutes, 56 seconds as ordinary would be fair.

San Jose Sharks' Marcus Sorenson (20) scores on Connor Hellebuyck with four seconds left in the game.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

San Jose Sharks' Marcus Sorenson (20) scores on Connor Hellebuyck with four seconds left in the game.

San Jose scored three goals on 16 shots by the midway point of the game, including a pair that trickled through his pads. Hellebuyck stopped nine in a row to finish the second period before yielding third-period tallies by Marcus Sorensen and Pavelski on a couple of perfect setups. On final count, he stopped 31 of 36 shots, with all five Sharks markers coming on five-on-five situations.

He struggled with rebound control, coughing up pucks on several occasions. Vlasic's game-opener was a direct result of loose puck that should have been sponged up by last year's Vezina Trophy finalist. Meanwhile, a few too many ugly ones are squeezing through his pads.

Hellebuyck has been granted 52 starts — fifth-most in the NHL — by Jets head coach Paul Maurice, posting a 28-20-2 record with a 3.01 goals-against average and .909 save percentage with no shutouts. Of the 19 goalies in the NHL with at least 40 starts, he ranks 17th in GAA and 12th in save percentage.

Exactly a year ago, he'd started 55 games (35-11-9) with a 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage, while blanking opponents six times.

No one believed goaltending would be even a mild area of concern for the Central Division team, particularly after Hellebuyck's brilliant 2017-18 campaign that earned the Michigan product a six-year, US$37-million contract. He has not been nearly as sharp in Year 1 of that deal, although his confidence level remains elevated.

"I like it. It’s in a really good spot," he said, describing his game. "I’ve been peaking at the right time. Granted, I don’t like getting scored on five times, but I think I was doing a lot of things right and I still see a little bit of improvement. We've still got a couple more games here and I'm going to continue peaking. And when the playoffs come around, it’s a whole new season.

"There are games when I feel like I should get a shutout, and I let in three. It’s tough to judge. Stats, they don’t tell the whole picture. On the season as a whole... I like where my game’s at."

The Jets (40-25-4) still lead the division by a point on Nashville and still have a pair of games in hand on the Predators. They host the Boston Bruins Thursday, at 7 p.m. But Winnipeg is just 4-7-1 in its last dozen contests since Valentine's Day, allowing 44 goals in that span — an average of 3.67 per game.

After letting in a few pucks at practice on Wednesday, Hellebuyck showed a little rage on the ice.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

After letting in a few pucks at practice on Wednesday, Hellebuyck showed a little rage on the ice.

Simply put, the club hasn't been nearly responsible enough with its puck management in all three zones, difficulties only exacerbated by injuries to Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey, a pair of top-four, heavy-minute defenceman.

Maurice acknowledged Hellebuyck played below his expected level earlier in the season but was trending upward until recently as the club's defensive struggles became more pronounced.

"He's played better as the season has went on. He was below our, more importantly, his expectation in the first half of the year," he said. "There's a defensive component to the game we're not quite as strong... in front of him. Right now, we understand part of it.

"There's pretty critical defenders (Byfuglien and Morrissey) missing from our blue line. But we can be a better defensive team in front of him."

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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