By ROBERT MACLEOD
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
ST. PAUL, MINN. -- On Tuesday it was revealed that Connor Hellebuyck was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the award handed out each season to the best goaltender in the NHL.
On Tuesday night, Hellebuyck provided ample justification why he is a deserving candidate.
After being shelled in his previous outing, Hellebuyck bounced back to provide all the big saves as the Winnipeg Jets battled to a tense 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Jets now have an enviable 3-1 lead in their opening best-of-seven playoff series against the Wild. Winnipeg can ecure its first playoff victory in franchise history with a win in Game 4 on home ice on Friday.
Like the other games of this hotly contested playoff, it was a tense and often turbulent battle between two swift-skating outfits that pushed the boundaries of permitted physical play at every opportunity.
After being embarrassed in his previous outing against the Wild on Sunday when he was crushed for six goals over two periods in a 6-2 Minnesota win, Hellebuyck more than redeemed himself to help lead the Jets to victory.
A Mark Scheifele goal in the dying moments of the first period allowed the Jets to carry a 1-0 lead into the third period where Minnesota desperately pushed to score the equalizer.
Jason Zuker had the first sterling opportunity, stepping into a slapshot that Hellebuyck, almost nonchalant in fashion, turned aside. Jason Zucker then batted the floating rebound out of midair but the puck could not wind its way into the net.
This spine-tingler continued unabated into the dying moments but the Wild could not generate the equalizer despite pulling goaltender Devan Dubnyk for a sixth attacker with just under two minutes to go.
Scheifele then added an empty netter with 11 seconds left to ice the Winnipeg victory.
The day did not get off to a good start for the Wild with the news that leading forward Zach Parise is out "week to week" after the team said he had suffered a fractured sternum during Minnesota's win on Sunday.
The injury news was also bleak for the Jets, who had to play without the services of defenceman Tyler Myers, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 3. Myers was sent back to Winnipeg before Tuesday's game to get a head start on trying to get healthy before the next game.
With Tobias Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov already on the shelf with injuries, the loss of yet another defender was the last thing the Jets needed to hear.
Hellebuyck was the unofficial sacrificial lamb following Sunday's 6-2 setback in which he surrendered six goals off 22 shots through the first two periods before he was mercifully replaced at the start of the third by backup Steve Mason.
But Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice was not about to hang his No. 1 out to dry and Hellebuyck was back between the pipes for Tuesday's encounter.
He blamed a lot of Hellebuyck's struggles on Sunday on the sluggish skating of his mates in front of him.
"We have a certain pace and cadence that we play at and when we do it makes all part of our game right," Maurice said before the game. "It also gives the goaltender a chance to see the shots he supposed to see from where he supposed to see them.
"So everything that we do in front of him [Hellebuyck] is important for him to play as well as he can."
The game got off to a cautious start but Minnesota soon warmed to the boisterous atmosphere within Xcel Energy Arena, packed to the rafters with close to 19,300 fans, and started to carry the play.
Joel Eriksson Ek had the first close in chance to put the Wild on the board, perched on Hellebuyck's doorstep, but his shot was nicely repelled by the Winnipeg netminder with just under eight minutes left in the period.
The home town fans were left apoplectic late in the period while the Wild were enjoying the man advantage. That's when Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey levelled Minnesota favorite Eric Staal with a nasty cross check to the head.
Staal fell heavily to the ice in front of the Winnipeg net but no penalty was forthcoming. The hometown fans howled in ear-splitting protest as the popular player groggily dragged himself off the ice.
The Jets then rubbed salt into that open wound when Scheifele converted a pretty backhand feed from Kyle Connor and his rising one-timer from deep in the slot beat Heat goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
That goal provided the Jets with a 1-0 lead with just 28 seconds left.
Hellebuyck had to be sharp in the opening minute of the second period when the Jets defence broke down and allowed a three-on-one Minnesota rush.
Matt Dumba thought he had the tying goal for the Wild whacking at the puck after accepting a cross-crease feed but Hellebuyck had other ideas, deftly knocking the rubber away with his glove.
The Winnipeg Jets celebrate with Mark Scheifele, top left, after his first-period goal in Game 4 against Minnesota on Tuesday night. The Jets won 2-0.