Connor Hellebuyck has had himself one heck of a week.
Having shut out the Vancouver Canucks in a 4-0 victory on Monday, the Winnipeg Jets’ netminder then nearly put up a second shutout on Wednesday, surrendering his only goal against in the dying minutes of the third period. On Friday, he was back to his old tricks against the Calgary Flames, keeping the home team off the scoreboard until the final period of play in a tight 3-2 Jets victory.
Coming into Friday’s matchup 3-1-1 against the Flames on the season, Winnipeg had surprisingly only won one of their last eight visits to Calgary. Relying on strong special teams, the Jets entered the matchup having killed 14 of its last 15 penalties and not having seen a power play goal against in five games.
Fresh off two-straight victories over the Vancouver Canucks, to which Winnipeg outscored their host 9-1 through 120 minutes of hockey, the Jets had the opportunity to pull even with the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs with 44 points, and they did just that. Once again opting to stick with the same lineup, Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice also went with Connor Hellebuyck in goal for his fourth-straight start.
The Jets opened the scoring for the fourth straight game, doing so by way of the team’s 11th power play goal in the month of March. With Dillon Dube in the box for high sticking Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg made the Flames pay just eight seconds into the man advantage.
A faceoff win led to a Kyle Connor shot that Paul Stastny redirected on its way to the net. The puck then rattled off Blake Wheeler’s skate for the second deflection, beating Jacob Markstrom for the game’s opening goal 9:13 into the frame.
“Stas did a great job on faceoffs, so when you’re starting in the offensive zone that’s huge,” Wheeler said. “On the first goal Mark did a great job kind of beating his guy off the wall and keeping that puck alive. So those little things are what give you an opportunity on the power play. I think we were a little more direct in getting some pucks to the net, which has been lacking for our unit. Kind of taking a page out of the other guys, who have had so much success getting pucks to the net and kind of doing it the old fashioned way. Got a few to go to the net, got a couple bounces, so it was a good night.”
Despite both teams having multiple power plays in the game, only Winnipeg was able to capitalize on one of its chances. Leading 1-0 after 20 minutes of play, the Jets also remained atop the shot chart with a minimal 10-6 lead through the first period.
After scoring one goal and putting up 10 shots compared to Calgary’s six in the first period, the Jets exactly matched that output in the middle stanza. Connor scored the lone goal of the frame for Winnipeg, capitalizing on a rebound of his own following a breakaway pass from Tucker Poolman. With Markstrom stopping Connor’s initial shot, the Jets’ goal leader stayed with it and put the rebound into the open net before curling to the corner to celebrate his 17th of the season.
“The puck just kind of came to me on one of those shifts,” Poolman said of his assist. “I turned around and he was yelling for it or someone was telling me to push the puck up there and he made a great play, went in and scored there. That’s kind of what happened.”
The third period was one that caused Winnipeg heightened levels of difficulty, as the Flames were able to put the puck past Hellebuyck in the early going. Following a thunderous Neal Pionk check on Johnny Gaudreau, fellow defenceman Dylan DeMelo wound up in the sin bin for an interference minor.
Milan Lucic scored a power play goal for Calgary, bringing the Flames to within one goal, on a play that deflected off Josh Morrissey before beating Hellebuyck from a strange angle. But with tempers flaring, Lucic found himself in the penalty box for four minutes on a double minor cross-check and roughing call. With Jacob Markstrom then taking a delay-of-game penalty, the Jets’ top unit found the twine.
Scoring its third goal of the season on a two-man advantage, Paul Stastny collected a perfect pass from Blake Wheeler, beating Markstrom to secure a two-goal Winnipeg lead with 5:06 left to play.
“That was on a tee at about two miles an hour, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Stastny joked. “If he makes a pass like that, it doesn’t surprise me – I’m always ready for it. He does a good job just being deceptive. Him and Mark, they do a good job of looking different ways, moving the puck, and not forcing what isn’t there. Eventually when it’s there, you have to take advantage of it.”
But moments later, with Markstrom on the bench for an extra attacker, Matthew Tkachuk brought the Flames back to one goal. Scoring with just 1:59 left, Calgary had new life. Then, making matters worse for Winnipeg, Stastny was called for a trip on the ensuing centre ice faceoff. Luckily, his mates were able to put up a goal-line stand, killing off the final two minutes of the game, helping Winnipeg to its 21st win of the season.
“It’s never ideal to go down six on four, but the four guys on the ice did an outstanding job,” Wheeler said of the game’s final two minutes. “Clearly we have a ton of confidence in our goalie, too. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s one of those things where it may happen again at a crucial moment, so it was nice to get the job done tonight.”
Hellebuyck stopped 25 of Calgary’s 27 shots on the night, while seeing his record improve to 16-9-2 with the win on Wednesday. His counterpart Jacob Markstrom turned aside 26 of Winnipeg’s 29 shots, who saw his record fall to 12-11-2 on the season. With the win, Winnipeg’s record improved to 21-11-2. The victory was Winnipeg’s first regulation win in Calgary since January 16, 2014.
“Lots of things,” Poolman said when asked about what’s going right with his goaltender as of late. “Whether the goals go in or not, I feel like he’s making good saves every night. He’s competing. We’re talking with him as defensemen and he’s picking us up or vice versa. No matter how the game’s going, he’s always dialed in and he’s a very competitive guy.”
The Jets and Flames will be right back at it in just 24 hours in game two of three between the North Division rivals. Closing out the season-high seven-game road trip with three-straight at the Scotiabank Saddledome, things will get underway at 9:00 PM in the second game on Hockey Night in Canada, available on CBC and Sportsnet. Winnipeg finally returns home on Wednesday, for the first of two-straight against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.