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Hellebuyck turns in vintage performance in Jets’ season-opening win over Rangers

WINNIPEG – Connor Hellebuyck was quick to deflect praise, even after he was the clear-cut star of the show.

The Winnipeg Jets netminder was in vintage form in the season opener in the crease, finishing with 40 saves – including 21 during the second period – to lead his team to a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night at Canada Life Centre.

Throughout the course of training camp, the Jets coaching staff talked about the importance of making life easier on Hellebuyck once the real games began, as they made things more predictable in front of him.

Despite some rocky moments during the second period, the Jets did a pretty good job in terms of sticking with their structure overall and when the breakdowns occurred, Hellebuyck did his part in cleaning up the mess, providing the type of highlight-reel saves folks have come to expect from him.

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The best of those stops was probably a stick save off Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, who coasted in on a breakaway after serving a minor for slashing but was robbed by the stick of Hellebuyck.

“Yeah, I actually got a little bit of knob on it,” said Hellebuyck. “Any rebound that I couldn’t control the guys were there. It’s not going to be the same game every night, and it’s not going to be pretty every night.

“This team played the right way. We needed everyone and we got everyone. It’s a great building step ”

Giving up 41 shots – and a total of 17 high-danger chances, including 11 at five-on-five according to naturalstattrick – isn’t a recipe for sustained success but Hellebuyck ensured the Jets started the season 1-0 with a sensational performance.

“Well you really don’t want your goalie to be the first star every night. It’s going to happen,” said Jets associate coach Scott Arniel, who found out between 3:30 and 4 p.m. CT that head coach Rick Bowness would be unable to be behind the bench for the opener after testing positive for COVID-19. “But at the end of the day we’d like to give him some easier nights. But the biggest thing is that we stumbled, but we found a way to win a hockey game. And this league’s about winning hockey games.

“For us it’s a lesson learned. When we play the right way for hopefully three periods the next game instead of two, hopefully it’s a little bit easier on our goaltender.”

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The Jets have needed to do a better job of finding ice time for the fourth line over the past few seasons and Arniel didn’t hesitate throwing David Gustafsson, Saku Maenalanen and Sam Gagner over the boards with just under five minutes to go in regulation of a tie game.

Wouldn’t you know it, Gustafsson made a smart play to find Maenalanen at the side of the net and he one-touched the puck over to Gagner for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

“You want to continue to earn trust,” said Gagner. “We want to be a team that can throw anyone over the boards and have success. Regardless of what your role is or how much you’re playing on a given night, you have to find ways to contribute.”

That contribution was not only appreciated, but was necessary.

With the Jets about to enter a three-game road stretch, piling up the minutes for the top forwards was not something they could afford to do.

For a team that’s in need of secondary scoring, getting the decisive goal from that fourth line was an important development.

“All three of them had been real responsible for most of the game and it was just a scenario where we were kind of looking at what was coming,” said Arniel. “They were kind of loading up on their top two lines and those guys had done the right things all game long and they had a real good shift prior to that, too. To get a goal like that, it was huge.”

Facing a Rangers team that was playing its third game in four nights, the Jets had a strong first period but had some issues with puck management in the second period, leading them to spend a good chunk of time on their heels.

But after Dryden Hunt buried a feed from Vincent Trocheck at 3:55 of the third period, the Jets responded by buckling down and scoring three unanswered goals to win their season opener.

Following the morning skate, Bowness shared his enthusiasm about opening night.

“You’ve had enough meetings, you’ve had enough practices. Let’s play, that’s what gets the adrenaline going,” said Bowness. “I’m as excited about the game as I’ve ever been. I love home openers, I love opening games, I love getting the season going, I love getting into the routine of the whole thing.”

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Finding out the new head coach wouldn’t be available just hours before puck drop wasn’t an optimal way to start the season, but the message Bowness delivered throughout training camp wasn’t lost.

“You miss his presence. He’s been preaching things throughout camp, ways we need to play to have success,” said Gagner. “We just needed to stick to that. We got away from that in the second period, but played a great first and bore down in the third and found a way to get to a win.”

The Jets’ top line of Mark Scheifele (two goals), Nikolaj Ehlers (two assists) and Kyle Connor (empty-net goal) led the way offensively (with one of those markers coming on the power play on beautiful feed from Pierre-Luc Dubois) and also showed the two-way effort that will be required for sustained success.

Scheifele also shared a special moment earlier in the day on his way to the rink as he stopped on Hargrave Avenue and took a look over at the Dale Hawerchuk statue.

“Yeah. I definitely got the chills when I drove by this morning. Luckily, the Hargrave light was red so I was able to look at it even more,” said Scheifele. “But obviously, I know Dale is watching over me and hopefully he’s proud of that one and (we) will keep it going the rest of the year.”

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