May. 18, 2018 2:47 AM EDT
LAS VEGAS (AP) — After the Winnipeg Jets lost Game 3 of the Western Conference final, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck didn’t seem fazed and spoke like a confident veteran rather than a third-year player whose team appears to be unraveling.
The Vezina Trophy-finalist went as far to say he liked his game better than the guy about 200 feet across the rink — 14-year veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 33 of 35 shots and improved to 10-3 in the postseason.
“I like my game, I like it a lot more,” Hellebuyck said after making 26 saves in Wednesday’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. “I like my details and will continue chugging away and getting better every single day.”
If Game 3 is any indication of the type of game Vegas will bring into Friday night’s Game 4, Hellebuyck needs to get better urgently.
“I think we’ve been capitalizing on some chances we’ve been getting,” Vegas forward Cody Eakin said after Thursday’s practice. “Getting to the dirty area, smackin’ ’em into the blue paint. He’s a heck of a goalie and he’s played very well all season and all playoffs for them. It’s just one of things where you have a game plan, you stick to it. Whether it’s the bounces or capitalizing on a rush or whatever it may be, we’re just trying to finish every chance we get.”
Like 35 seconds into Game 3, when a premature poke-check by Hellebuyck led to a goal by Jonathan Marchessault. Hellebuyck’s ill-advised mistake allowed Marchessault to use a forehand-backhand deke and give Vegas the momentum early with a 1-0 lead.
In the second period, Hellebuyck went behind the net and lifted the puck to clear it but Erik Haula was there to knock it down and feed James Neal, who found the open net to give Vegas a 2-1 lead just 12 seconds after Mark Scheifele tied the score.
Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice refuses to blame his goalie, though, and seemed fine Thursday, with the rather braggadocious manner Hellebuyck speaks with, despite allowing three or more goals for the second consecutive game and fifth time in his last nine games.
“It’ll be across the crease, no chance in hell he’s getting that puck, and he believes he can stop that puck,” Maurice said. “I don’t plan to stomp that mentality. He believes he can stop everyone, and then he moves on pretty darned well. He doesn’t carry it too heavy with him. He’s got confidence in the right way.”
So does Fleury, who leads the NHL with a career-best 1.70 goals-against average during the playoffs. And if the Jets can’t get more production outside of Scheifele, they’ll find themselves on the brink of elimination after Friday’s game.
Scheifele, who now owns the NHL record for most goals scored on the road in a single playoff with 11, has 14 goals and six assists in 15 games. But for a dangerous team that gotten this far because of its depth, guys like Vegas defensemen Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore have shown they can keep the Jets in their own zone or disrupt things in the neutral zone.
“A few miscues and they made us pay for it — that can’t happen,” said Scheifele, who has three of the Jets’ seven goals in this series. “They’re going to have their games, we’re going to have our games. We can’t sulk on this too long. We gotta pick ourselves up and be ready for a big game on Friday.”
The Jets showed some life in the third period on Wednesday, and certainly outplayed what appeared to be a weary Vegas team over the final 20 minutes, but Fleury was outstanding in coming up with tremendous highlight saves to preserve the win.
“I think we’re starting to get a better understanding of how we have to attack and how we have to approach the net,” Maurice said. “At 2-1, we’re all aware that we’re down 2-1, but it’s still fairly early in the series. Both teams are going to come out guns-a-blazing and try to give the other team nothing.”
History is against the Jets, who are trailing in a series for the first time this postseason. Teams with a 2-1 lead in the conference final (or NHL semifinals) have won the series 35 of 43 times (81.4 percent) since 1975.
And unless Hellebuyck’s confidence translates into keeping the puck out of his net, and Scheifele gets some help at the other end, history is bound to repeat itself.
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