WINNIPEG – On the eve of the Jets’ playoff opener, goalie Connor Hellebuyck felt butterflies forming.
And not the version goaltenders drop into on the ice to stop the puck.
“My energy is peaking, and it’s a really fun time,” Hellebuyck said after the Jets’ final walk-through Tuesday at Bell MTS Iceplex. “I always say that it’s a really fun time, but you don’t get to experience this every day.”
Actually, Hellebuyck has never gone through an NHL postseason, with Game 1 against the Wild on Wednesday at Bell MTS Place poised to be his debut. And although the backdrop will be new for the 24-year-old, a career-best season that he felt capable of accomplishing certainly seems to have primed him for the challenge.
“I expect to win every single night, and I expect to bring my A-plus game,” Hellebuyck said. “All the work I’ve done all summer long, the preparation, it’s hard for me to see myself failing when I’m giving my A-plus and doing all the work I’m doing. It’s a hard road. It’s nice that it’s paying off.”
No one on either team is arguably in a better groove entering the matchup than Hellebuyck.
He’s won nine in a row, the longest streak in Jets history, and closed out the regular season by notching his 44th win — an NHL first among U.S.-born goalies that tied for the most victories in the league this season. Hellebuyck also tied the NHL record for home wins in a season with 30.
Overall, he went 44-11-9 with a .924 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average.
“A real straight line, like our team,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “He didn’t come in and out of the season where he had a rough stretch. He had some strong games, but it wasn’t a run of games where he stole games for us. He was just really, really solid all year. So it’s kind of a true confidence that he hasn’t had quite the spikes.”
Part of the work Hellebuyck invested in the offseason before this career year came alongside his counterpart at the other end of the ice this series, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.
The two met last summer in Kelowna, British Columbia, and worked out together. They also shared a golf course a few times.
“He’s a great guy,” Hellebuyck said of Dubnyk. “He was open arms and took us in like we were a good friend, and he was welcoming. It was nice.”
It didn’t occur to Hellebuyck back then that the two could square off against each other in the playoffs despite being Central Division rivals. But with his steady play this season, after an up-and-down first run as a starter in 2016-17, it’s no surprise Hellebuyck and Dubnyk are meeting up again on this stage.
“He put in his time this summer,” Dubnyk said. “He wasn’t satisfied with last year. I think they were probably a little harder on him than he deserved, but he used that as a positive. I talked to him about it in the summer, entering the season and just being prepared because you don’t know when that opportunity is going to come. For him to grab that so quickly, it’s been fun to watch.
“But that’s enough now. It’s been a great year for him, but I’ll stop cheering now.”