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Wheeler, Hellebuyck named NHL all-stars

AP Photo/David Zalubowski</p><p>Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler – along with goalie Connor Hellebuyck – have been named to the NHL All-Star Game. </p>

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler – along with goalie Connor Hellebuyck – have been named to the NHL All-Star Game.

CHICAGO — Back in October, pointing to Blake Wheeler as a 2017-18 NHL all-star wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility. But what about Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, whose introduction to life as a starter last season went about as smoothly as a city back lane in winter.

On Wednesday, the league invited both Jets to attend the big weekend for the game's greats later this month in Tampa Bay, Fla.

The Winnipeg captain and the club's No. 1 goaltender were selected to play for the Central Division's team at the all-star mini-tournament on Jan. 28. Both are having sensational seasons for the Jets (26-11-7), who hold top spot in the division and a three-point lead over the Nashville Predators.

It's the first time either player has been named a league all-star.

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CHICAGO — Back in October, pointing to Blake Wheeler as a 2017-18 NHL all-star wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility. But what about Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, whose introduction to life as a starter last season went about as smoothly as a city back lane in winter.

On Wednesday, the league invited both Jets to attend the big weekend for the game's greats later this month in Tampa Bay, Fla.

The Winnipeg captain and the club's No. 1 goaltender were selected to play for the Central Division's team at the all-star mini-tournament on Jan. 28. Both are having sensational seasons for the Jets (26-11-7), who hold top spot in the division and a three-point lead over the Nashville Predators.

It's the first time either player has been named a league all-star.

On Wednesday, Wheeler the dad sounded like he's going to enjoy the all-star weekend more than Wheeler the hockey player.

"Well, as you get older it's something you can share with your family," he said, noting his young son is pumped up about the Florida getaway. "Louie's pretty excited. It's a cool experience for him. That's what makes it special, to be able to share it with your family. It's in a pretty cool place this year. It'll be exciting."

Wheeler, 31, is in his 10th season in the NHL and eighth with the Jets franchise. A steady offensive performer for the club since it relocated from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season, the Minnesotan started strong on the wing with centre Mark Scheifele this year and has elevated his game since he moved to the middle when Scheifele got hurt just after Christmas.

He's tied for second in the league in points (52) and assists (38), is currently on a seven-game point streak and has 11 points (5G, 6A) during that stretch.

The Jets had an off day after downing the host Buffalo Sabres 7-4 Tuesday night. Speaking with reporters at a downtown Chicago hotel, Wheeler tried to deke around questions about the career year he's having offensively and his role as a driver on the surging club.

Instead, he spoke of the influences of those around him in the organization that led to his all-star selection.

"I think it's a testament to our team. I play with a lot of really good guys and have had a lot of great opportunities, and these things happen when you get those great opportunities," said Wheeler, said the 6-5, 225 forward currently centring the club's top line with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. "The recognition is great, but at the end of the day it's more about where we're at as a group and I think that's what's given us a lot of excitement this year.

"I play a lot of minutes, play with really good players since we've been back and I give that as much credit, moreso than giving credit to myself. I've worked on my game a lot to get better every year. Where that stacks up in the league, that's not for me to debate. But I've been blessed to have a coach like Paul Maurice to push me, learned a lot from him and I think my game has gotten better every year having a guy like him behind the bench."

Meanwhile, the remarkable turnaround season for Hellebuyck continues. The 24-year-old from Michigan, in his third season in the league, is third in the NHL in wins (23) and tied for fourth in shutouts (three).

Among goaltenders with a minimum of 15 games played, he ranks second in winning percentage (.788), seventh in goals-against average (2.36) and 10th in save percentage (.923).

Last season, he struggled at times with consistency — he was pulled early no fewer than eight times — but he's been a pillar of strength for the Jets in the '17-18 bounce-back campaign.

"It’s awesome. It’s a big accomplishment in my life. Me and my family will enjoy it and (Wheeler) will enjoy it as well," said Hellebuyck, a big man in the cage at 6-4, 210 pounds.

"(Confidence) is high. It’s exactly where it was last year, but now I can really trust it. The guys in front of me can see it, they can feel it. They’re helping it a lot because they’re playing so well. You can see in the details of our game. Everybody is doing the right thing. They’re not cheating at all and that’s really helping me a lot."

The all-star game will once again feature a three-game tournament, played in a three-on-three format, showcasing teams from each division competing for a US$1-million winner-take-all prize pool.

Traditionally, goalies get roasted, but Hellebuyck already has a plan in place to get some good karma going.

"It’s going to be tough, obviously. But I think I’m going to look for a big glove save and, hopefully, I can get the crowd on my side... cheer my name."

Wheeler said Hellebuyck doesn't have to go out of his way to impress anyone in Tampa Bay; he's been doing that since he took over the net the second week of the season.

"He was pretty young to be given the starting role last year. It was a big challenge for him. I don't think anyone ever wrote him off or lost confidence in him. Everyone was excited to see what he could do this year and he's taken the ball and run with it," said Wheeler. "He's had just an incredible year. We're not where we are right now without him. He's been the biggest difference in our team this year getting to where we're going, and he's going to have a huge impact, ultimately, where we end up going this year."

Wheeler admitted he's not eager to participate in the skills competition the day before the game.

"Guys like me can make themselves look pretty bad at those things. Hopefully, they hide me. I don't want to be in any foot races with Connor McDavid."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

 

 

 

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Updated on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 at 6:25 PM CST: Full write through, adds photo

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