Hellebuyck, Jets take on Oilers

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — What a difference a year makes.

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was a game-breaker last season, posting 44 wins, a goals-against average of 2.36, a save percentage of .924, and making regular appearances on the highlights of the night on evening sportscasts.

But he’s struggling this year, posting nine wins in 18 games, a GAA of 2.98 and a save percentage of .907.

His goals against is 27th among NHL goalies who have played a minimum of 10 games while his save percentage is 25th. Last year, when he was runner up for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, he was sixth and seventh, respectively, in those categories.

Hellebuyck’s play was spotty in the Jets 4-1 series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final last spring and he has continued to let in soft goals this year. He surrendered two Tuesday night in a 4-3 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a game in which the Jets blew a third-period lead for the fifth time this season.

After going 42-1-1 when it entered the final frame with a lead last year, the Jets are 7-3-2 in such situations this season.

Hellebuyck, to his credit, isn’t shirking responsibility or looking to shift the blame to his defenseman or forwards for blowing assignments.

When asked about the goal from fourth-liner Derek Grant that evened the game at 3-3 early in the third period on Tuesday, Hellebuyck said he has trouble believing it got by him.

“That one is on me. I’ve got to find a way to stop a weird knuckler. It just sucks because I was having a great game and the guys were playing fantastic in front of me,” he told The Winnipeg Sun.

“I could give you a million excuses, but that’s all they’re going to be, excuses. So I’m not going to go that route. I’m just going to take responsibility and say, that one is on me.”

He’ll hope to turn things around on Thursday night at Bell MTS Place against Chicago. The Blackhawks limp into town on the heels of an 8-3 thumping at the hands of the Golden Knights, their third loss in four games. Winners of three Stanley Cups this decade, the Blackhawks have already fired their long-time coach, Joel Quenneville, this season and sit in sixth place in the ultra-tough Central Division. The Jets are in fourth place.

Perhaps symptomatic of their season is their seeming inability to determine their game times. The Blackhawks trailed 3-0 after one period to Vegas, 2-0 in 14 minutes to Florida the game before that and 4-1 to Tampa Bay in less than 15 minutes and 3-0 to Washington in less 30 minutes in the two games before that.

Captain Jonathan Toews, a native Winnipegger, wouldn’t admit his team’s slow starts are part of a bigger problem.

“I don’t think what you saw (Tuesday night) was a trend that’s been emerging at all,” he said in a post-game scrum. “It’s just one of those games (where) you’re just flat and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.

“We’ll be (ticked) off about it. We’ll be angry. We’ve got to be better, but we can just focus on the next one.”