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Hellebuyck finds motivation in helping Jets tackle latest challenge

Strong play of goalie has helped Winnipeg climb up standings after rocky start to season

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Connor Hellebuyck had something to prove, and that's just the way he likes it. 

The Winnipeg Jets goalie entered this season determined to make them a Stanley Cup contender again after they were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. 

"I was really eager to get back and get my chance to go after it again," said the 26-year-old, who is 15-8-2 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .931 save percentage following a 5-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. "Hungry to play is a good way to put it.

"This is a win-or-go-home league. If you want to be someone and stick around, you have to win. So we're hungry to play and hungry to win, and we're enjoying it, that's the best part. We're loving every second of it."

Go home is what the Jets did last season.  

After finishing second in the Central Division, they were defeated in six games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games. This after reaching the Western Conference Final two seasons ago. 

Hellebuyck's been a major factor in helping the Jets rebound from a 6-7-0 start to the season to a record of 19-11-2, which has them third in the Central division, three points behind the second-place Colorado Avalanche and four behind the first-place Blues.

Video: WPG@DAL: Hellebuyck robs Seguin with great glove snag

Despite allowing four goals Thursday -- including two that went in off the skate of a Jets defenseman -- Hellebuyck is 10-2-3 with a 2.10 GAA and .937 save percentage in 16 game since Nov. 1.

"I think everybody was motivated after last year," forward Patrik Laine said. "It was too long of a summer for everybody, and I think everybody was hungry when the season started. [Hellebuyck] probably had something to prove as well, after last year, like everybody did in this locker room. But we've seen that hunger on the ice. He's been really good."

Hellebuyck was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2016-17, when he went 44-11-9 with a 2.36 GAA and .924 save percentage) but was 34-23-3 with a 2.90 GAA and .913 save percentage last season. 

Video: WPG@TBL: Hellebuyck robs Palat with the glove

His bounce-back performance this season could hardly be better timed, given the major overhaul of Jets defensemen in the offseason.

Jacob Trouba was traded, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot left in free agency, and Dustin Byfuglien was granted a personal leave the day before training camp started this season and has been suspended since Sept. 22. The entirety of Winnipeg's quality right side (Byfuglien, Trouba, Myers) vanished.

The Jets plugged in six new defensemen, Neal Pionk, Luca Sbisa, Tucker Poolman, Anthony Bitetto, Carl Dahlstrom and Ville Heinola (who was returned to Lukko of SM-Liiga on Nov. 8), to join returning Josh Morrissey, Nathan Beaulieu and Dmitry Kulikov.

Hellebuyck said time was required to discover cohesion and improvement with a new group and that the precipitous drop in regard for the Jets, especially because they were missing Byfuglien, Trouba, Myers and Chiarot, has been overdone.

"Those guys were young once too," Hellebuyck said. "People probably panicked on them too at one time, and look at them now, they're fantastic. I think our guys are playing great in front of me.

"Last year, we had expectations, so when we'd win, (people thought) we should have won. Now we're winning and it's like we earned this one. Me personally, that's how I feel. I can't speak for everyone else, but that's the vibe I'm getting."

The sense that the Jets have earned their record to this point comes from the attention to detail and some patience for the newness of defensemen and defense pairs.

Morrissey said that required each player to focus on his consistency.

"As a player, it's probably the best thing you can give a partner or a linemate," he said. "You're able to make the same consistent reads all the time. You don't have to think. 

"For [Hellebuyck], it's even more than that. There are six defensemen, maybe nine if you look at all the injuries, that he has to get used to, what their tendencies are.

"As a group, I think we've been doing a pretty good job of not trying to reinvent a play or try to make the home-run play. We just make consistent plays. Nobody's trying to be too fancy or overhandle it and I think that's probably given him some confidence."

Before the system and structure work, Hellebuyck said he was determined in the offseason to continue to improve personally.

He decided that should include work on his balance and his depth, which would help him be a bit more aggressive.

Video: VAN@WPG: Hellebuyck robs Horvat with great glove save

"But it's not one thing," he said. "It's the comfort of finding my trigger. Because once I found the trigger, I feel perfectly balanced. And everything kind of flows off that. I don't want to say I wasn't battling last year, but I'm able to battle easier because I'm balanced. I trust everything I've done."

Hellebuyck said he would keep the specifics of his "trigger" to himself.

"It's a personal key that's minor to other people, but it's huge in my game," he said.

There have been tweaks, but no big changes, and Hellebuyck is the model of consistency in the Jets locker room, according to his teammates.

"I think he's been the same old [Hellebuyck]," Laine said. "He probably skates less. I think he always takes the option when he can so we're always chirping him because he never skates and we never see him out there. But he probably knows what he needs to do and we're respecting that, and it seems to be working so we might as well keep going."

Said forward Andrew Copp: "I feel like mentally he hasn't gotten too high on himself. He just feels like he's doing his part. He's obviously been fantastic. Probably been our MVP in the first third of the season."

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