WINNIPEG — Connor Hellebuyck's back-to-back shutouts in Games 4 and 5 highlighted the Winnipeg Jets' impressive opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in which they eliminated the Minnesota Wild in five games.
Now, as the Jets take some time to rest and prepare for the second round, Hellebuyck's emergence as an elite goaltender has come clearly into focus, as well as Winnipeg's overall defensive play.
"Our team has been phenomenal this year. We've played such a good team defence," said Hellebuyck on Sunday, as the Jets returned to the ice after bouncing the Wild on Friday.
"You can see the trust on the ice. You can see the defencemen, when they trust me to have the shot and they take the back door. And when we have that trust in each other, it makes everyone so much better at their job."
Coming off his matching pair of 30-save shutouts, and a recent nomination for the Vezina Trophy, the 24-year-old goaltender seems to be on an upward trajectory right as the Jets need him to be playing his best hockey. The confidence Hellebuyck has in himself, as well as for his teammates, has reached its highest point in his playing career.
"Maybe things aren't always going to be this good. I'm going to have to look to the future and remember this. That this was a big building stone and a step in my career," said the 2012 fifth-round draft pick. "That I can do this, and if things falter, I have a good foundation to fall back on. And no matter what, that good foundation to fall back on is always going to to be able to be built. We're always building for more."
"We put a lot of hard work into it, but now we're here for the long term. We want to win a Stanley Cup and we're going to continue to build our games until the very end."
Looking back at Winnipeg's lone loss in the series — a 6-2 defeat in Minnesota in Game 3 — head coach Paul Maurice said Hellebuyck's play in the first round, and this season, is tied closely to his club's overall defensive soundness.
"They are absolutely married together," said Maurice. "So, the entire team wasn't right in Game 3 — our back-end included. It would have been very difficult for Connor to have a different result with what was going on in front of him, but he looked like the rest of us too. We were a step behind it. There wasn't any real concern that he wasn't going to bounce back the next game because our whole team would. But he's been like that all year."
Like Hellebuyck, top-pairing defenceman Josh Morrissey is also in his second full season with the Jets. Both drafted by Winnipeg — in 2012 and 2013, respectively — the two have begun their NHL careers together, and spent time during the 2015-16 season with the AHL's Manitoba Moose.
"It's something where the more you get to play with a goaltender, like a D-partner, the more times you go back for a puck (and) he knows how I move differently than Dustin Byfuglien does," said Morrissey. "All those little things that you get comfortable with over time. He's such a calm goaltender in the net, you never feel flustered and it makes it easy on us."
Maurice echoed Morrissey's thoughts on the growing synergy between Hellebuyck and his defencemen.
"It's required for a defenceman to have that non-verbal communication with the goaltender and understand where they're going to move on certain plays. Experience, its the best teacher for all of that," he said. "(Hellebuyck) has started a big number of games this year, but last year as well, and you start to learn what the men in front of you are going to do. And maybe our injuries over the last two years have helped us. He's seen different players and gotten to know all of them."
"Being in the net enough reps to understand what your defencemen are most likely to do — where the play is going to flow. That helps the goaltender. A really critical piece to them reading the game."
The Jets will face the winner of the series between the Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche. Nashville leads the first-round matchup 3-2 heading into Game 6 in Denver on Sunday night.
The Jets, who have won 12 straight at home dating back to the regular season, will enjoy home-ice advantage if the Avalanche are able to come back against the Presidents' Trophy winning Predators.
Darrin Bauming, The Canadian Press