CHICAGO — The Winnipeg Jets will go with their newly minted all-star goaltender tonight when they take on the Chicago Blackhawks in a key Central Division matchup.
Connor Hellebuyck returns to the crease at United Center. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
He’s 4-3-0 with a shutout in seven starts against the Blackhawks, although he was between the pipes in a 5-1 loss to Chicago in mid-December.
The 24-year-old netminder, selected Wednesday to participate in the NHL All-Star Game weekend Jan. 27-28 in Tampa Bay, Fla., has gone nine games without a defeat in regulation (7-0-2), boasting a 1.86 goals-against average and .940 save percentage during that stretch.
Overall, Hellebuyck’s 23 victories rank him behind only Andrei Vasilevskiy (27) of the Lightning and Braden Holtby (24) of the Washington Capitals, and he has three shutouts to go with a solid 2.36 GAA and .923 SV%.
Backup goalie Steve Mason earned his fourth victory of the season Tuesday in Buffalo — stopping 30 shots in a 7-4 win — and could get the call from head coach Paul Maurice to start Saturday night in St. Paul, Minn., against the Wild, the second half of back-to-back contests.
But Maurice said he wouldn’t be adverse to running Hellebuyck on consecutive nights, particularly with Winnipeg’s league-mandated five-day break set to begin Sunday.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler (14G, 38A) also received the nod to take part in the all-star weekend. He’s tied for second in the league in points (52), with Steve Stamkos of the Lightning, the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux. Tampa Bay right-winger Nikita Kucherov has an eight-point cushion on the group.
Speaking after practice Thursday morning at Johnny’s IceHouse on the west side of Chicago, Maurice called the news on Hellebuyck and Wheeler a "nice salute" to the work both players have done this season.
"Over the last few years, sometimes it’s been positional about a guy who went. But those two fellows here deserve to go and deserve to represent our team by some really fine and very consistent play," he said. "Right from the get go, they both have driven our team, Blake up front as our captain and filling in at centre and Connor just a great body of work at this time of year."
The Jets manhandled the Sabres for much of the first 45 minutes Tuesday at KeyBank Center before coming unravelled and allowing even-strength tallies to Jason Pominville and Jack Eichel, with his second of the game.
Watching a 6-2 lead deteriorate to just a two-goal bulge with more than five minutes left on the clock was disconcerting, blue-liner Josh Morrissey said.
"We let our foot off the gas in the third and they’re the kind of team — maybe their record doesn’t show — but with some of the talented players on their roster, they can burn you. There is no quit on that team," he said.
"For us, we definitely need to clean up some things, and it’s been nice with a couple of days between games to think about that."
Maurice said he didn’t notice a complacency setting in, but some key assignments were definitely missed, particularly when Eichel was left unattended for an easy tap-in goal.
"The technical part of it, the positioning that we could be a little bit better. On two of the goals, there were things that we could do better," he said.
Maurice was in the building for the ’Hawks-Minnesota Wild game on Wednesday. A rarity, he noted.
"I would say the number of NHL games, regular season, that I’ve seen live would be about 10. And it is a completely different vantage point from where we were sitting way up top. Good that we got to watch them," he said of Winnipeg’s next two opponents.
"Chicago’s a real interesting team. They had over six minutes of offensive-zone time in the first period... They really have a dynamic group. They’ve lost some guys, but they haven’t lost their speed. I think they’re faster now, they’re making even more plays, if that’s possible.
"So, that speed part, for today’s practice and based on our game at home against them, that’s the No. 1 thing for us (tonight)."
Injured forwards Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev wore yellow jerseys and took some drills with extra forward Brendan Lemieux, however, neither will accompany the team into battle against Chicago.
"I don’t have them going," Maurice said.
"It was more for their legs, but they weren’t shooting or passing the way they normally would at 100 per cent. So, we’ll say no for sure (for tonight) and then we’ll revisit it for (Saturday). But, again, unless they feel they’re at 95 (per cent to face the Wild), we’ll hold them out."
Tanev (lower body), will miss his sixth straight contest. He’s been out since being injured Dec. 29 at home against the New York Islanders. Lowry (upper body) will miss his third game after getting banged up at home against Buffalo on Jan. 5.
Jets centre Mark Scheifele (upper body) is still weeks from returning to the lineup.
Defenceman Ben Chiarot will join Lemieux in the press box as the team’s healthy scratches.
Maurice forgot one crucial element to running an NHL practice Thursday: slip off the skate guards before stepping onto the ice.
"I went out there and down I went. Players were good, they smiled about it," Maurice said. "I looked up at all the media guys and saw tears rolling down their faces. All I saw was teeth and tears up there. I’m glad I amused you.
"I’m fine, thanks. Thanks for asking."
The last time, if ever, he let his guard down, as it were?
"It was in Carolina," he said.
"These guys were way more respectful of it, they pretended like they didn’t see it."
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).
Updated on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 11:59 PM CST: changes photos