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Jets rookie Hellebuyck impresses with wins in first three NHL starts @NHL

WINNIPEG - Connor Hellebuyck has a pre-game ritual that goes beyond which skate he puts on first, or whether he taps the net a certain number of times.

The Winnipeg Jets rookie goaltender juggles two balls against a wall before every game to get his eyes warmed up.

It's a mental exercise he learned from then-general manager Joe Clark when he played junior in Texas, with the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League.

Clark was also a former goaltending coach and long-time head coach.

"He really helped me with my attitude on the ice," Hellebuyck said Wednesday after the Jets practised for Thursday's home game against Columbus. "He helped me become calm and not let my emotions show.

"He helped me turn into a better, faster goalie, but I would say the best parts that I got from him were definitely the mental aspect of the game.

"He introduced me to juggling balls before games. It helps getting your eyes going, and helped me along the way getting to the next step quicker."

Hellebuyck's calm demeanour has been praised as the 22-year-old has rolled out three straight victories in his first trio of NHL starts. He's only given up one goal in each of those victories against Minnesota, Toronto and Washington.

The highly touted prospect was Winnipeg's fifth-round pick (130th overall) in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The Commerce, Mich., native played two years at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and joined Winnipeg's American Hockey League St. John's IceCaps farm team last season.

When the IceCaps relocated to Winnipeg and became the Manitoba Moose, Hellebuyck was just down the hall for his call-up after veteran netminder Ondrej Pavelec was injured Nov. 21. He's out until at least January.

Hellebuyck was behind sophomore goalie Michael Hutchinson and got his first NHL start on Nov. 27 in Minneapolis against the Wild, a game his parents and brother and sister attended.

Head coach Paul Maurice wouldn't reveal which goalie would be in net against the Blue Jackets (11-16-2).

The Jets (13-13-2) are coming off a 3-1 loss in Chicago last Sunday when Hutchinson manned the crease. It was his fourth straight loss and he's 0-7-1 in his last eight starts. Winnipeg plays in Chicago again on Friday.

Hutchinson said he and Hellebuyck get along great and there's no tension, the same relationship he has with Pavelec.

He knows what it's like to have success in a rookie campaign, when he played 38 games last season and went 21-10-5, so he's happy for Hellebuyck.

"He's having a great start and he's making his own path," Hutchinson, 25, said. "It's exciting to see a goalie getting an opportunity and making the most of it."

He's confident he'll get through his "rough stretch."

"It's 82 games so this is just a small portion of a long road," said Hutchinson, who's 5-7-1. "It's just all about getting a win and getting back on track.

"I've been happy with my game. It's not to the point where I'm letting in bad goals or anything like that. It's just unlucky breaks and just not being able to come up with that big save at the moment. But that's all going to change at some point. You never have a full season that goes this way."

Veteran Mark Stuart said he and the team's defencemen are adjusting to the goaltending pair, noting Hutchinson catches with his right hand and Hellebuyck with his left.

"Both of them provide us with a lot of confidence.???," Stuart said. "They play the puck differently so that's kind of the only real adjustment you need to make as a defenceman as far as the different ways you communicate."

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