Before they can gobble up pucks between the pipes, goaltenders sometimes need to clear out the space between their ears. Connor Hellebuyck started that task immediately following his Game 3 loss to the Wild, when the Winnipeg netminder was pulled after giving up six goals in 40 minutes.
Hellebuyck knows the best way to forget a dismal game is to replace that memory with something happier, and he got a double dip of bliss Tuesday. On the day he was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Hellebuyck stopped 30 shots in a 2-0 victory over the Wild, lifting the Jets to a 3-1 lead in the series with his first postseason shutout.
Winnipeg goalie coach Wade Flaherty delivered the Vezina news to Hellebuyck a few hours before Game 4. The goalie said it “added a little more hop to my step” to learn he had joined Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy as a finalist for the award, which goes to the NHL’s top goaltender. But just as he did after his woeful Game 3, Hellebuyck had to exercise a bit of selective amnesia, clearing his mind of everything other than his task in Game 4.
“I don’t know if [the announcement] changed my game too much, because I prepare the same way, and I do the same things every day,” Hellebuyck said. “It’s just a nice milestone that me and my family will enjoy.
“It’s exciting, but I had to dial it back in. We’re here to do a job, and we’re here to win a Stanley Cup. I have to worry about that first.”
In the regular season, Hellebuyck earned 44 victories — the most ever in an NHL season by a U.S.-born goalie — and ranked in the top 10 in games (67), shutouts (six), goals-against average (2.36) and save percentage (.924). Though this is his first time in the playoffs, his teammates and coaches said his season-long body of work left their faith unshaken after Sunday’s stinker.
Several teammates accepted a share of the blame. They did not support Hellebuyck as well as usual in Game 3, failing to control the front of the net or prevent traffic from obscuring the goalie’s vision. Coach Paul Maurice thought getting back to their usual speedy style would correct those problems, and Hellebuyck responded as he expected.
“He’s mentally very, very strong, very confident in his game,” Maurice said. “You knew five to 10 minutes into [Tuesday’s game] that he was right and feeling good. It’s really good for our hockey team to see that from him, to see he can come back and rebound.”
It wasn’t anything Maurice hadn’t already witnessed. In seven regular-season games, Hellebuyck allowed five or six goals. He won his next start after six of those.
Tuesday, he found his groove quickly. In the first period, Hellebuyck stopped a good look by Joel Eriksson Ek in the left circle, then denied Eric Staal on a point-blank chance in front of the net. His most picturesque save came early in the second period, when he lunged to swat away a shot from a charging Matt Dumba in the right circle.
Though Hellebuyck shied away from discussing the Vezina race after the game, teammates already were lobbying for him.
“That save he made on Dumba, those are saves that win you hockey games,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said. “That could have changed the whole course of the game. We’re not here without him, plain and simple.’’