By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – Connor Hellebuyck is going to try to make sure his golfing buddy Devan Dubnyk hits the links before he does this spring.
The goaltenders became friends while training and playing golf together last summer, but that friendship is on hold now that their teams are foes in the opening round of the NHL playoffs.
Hellebuyck’s Winnipeg Jets host Dubnyk’s Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Wednesday.
Hellebuyck said he and Dubnyk might exchange good luck texts, but his own message won’t be too supportive.
“We can kind of throw one out there,” Hellebuyck said after the Jets practised Monday. “He’s a good goalie and I think it’s going to be fun and a great goaltending battle and good luck to him, but not that much.”
Dubnyk also tempered his well wishes to Hellebuyck after Monday’s Wild practice.
He told Minnesota reporters that he’d given Hellebuyck some advice last summer about being prepared for whenever opportunity knocks.
“For him to grab that so quickly and go, it’s been fun to watch but that’s enough now,” Dubnyk said. “It’s been a great year for him, but I’ll stop cheering for him now.”
Hellebuyck’s play was one of the big reasons the Jets (52-20-10) finished second in the Central Division and the NHL and are 11-1-0 in their last 12 games.
They set franchise marks for wins, points (114) and home wins (32). Their home record at Bell MTS Place (32-7-2) was tops in the NHL.
Hellebuyck, a 24-year-old Commerce, Mich., native, went 44-11-9 in his third NHL season with a 2.36 goals against average and .924 save percentage. His 44 wins set an NHL record for an American goalie, surpassing Tom Barrasso’s 1992-93 total with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He also tied the NHL record for most wins at home by a goaltender in a single season with 30. Wayne Stephenson of the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers had the same tally.
The Wild (45-26-11) grabbed third place in the division with 101 points and went 6-2-4 in their last dozen outings. They had the league’s fewest home regulation losses at Xcel Energy Center (27-6-8).
Dubnyk was 35-16-7 with a 2.52 goals against average and .918 save percentage in his 10th full season. The 31-year-old has 21 playoff games on his resume.
Hellebuyck is one of 11 Jets who haven’t suited up for a single NHL playoff game, but coach Paul Maurice doesn’t expect the goalie’s calm demeanour will change.
“He’s been so darn good all year we expect he’ll continue to do that,” Maurice said. “The playoffs may be a different animal, but the game is the same, right?
“Pucks are going to get shot and he’s going to stop them. I think he’s having that even-keel demeanour while also being a really competitive fellow. Those guys usually thrive.”
Winnipeg won three of the four games the teams played against each other, but the last one was in mid January.
The Jets won’t have injured veteran defenceman Toby Enstrom in the lineup for the first playoff game, but he might be ready soon, Maurice said. Injured veteran forward Matt Hendricks could be added later in the series.
Wild defenceman Jared Spurgeon, who tore a hamstring last month, practised with the team Monday. Coach Bruce Boudreau said he’s waiting for him to be cleared to play. Veteran blue-liner Ryan Suter is out with a broken ankle.
One intangible in the series is the impact of playoff experience.
The Wild are in the playoffs for the sixth straight season, while it’s the second time for the Jets since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in 2011. That ended with a 2015 sweep at the hand of the Anaheim Ducks.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said he’s not planning to talk to his young teammates who have never been in the post-season.
“There’s no need for me to have any big speeches, there’s no need for me to give a power point presentation,” said Wheeler, who had a team and career-high 91 points in 81 games.
“These guys have played big games before. Some of our young guys have played on big stages and performed at really high levels on big stages.
“The worst thing you can do is try to cripple anyone with fear. We’re preparing for one hockey game. It’s nothing bigger than that, nothing smaller than that. It’s the same thing we’ve done all year.”
Wild centre Eric Staal, a veteran of 53 playoff games, topped his team with 76 points, including 42 goals. Winnipeg had its own 40-goal sniper in sophomore Patrik Laine, who fired in 44 goals and 70 points.
“I’m never nervous when it’s about hockey. Just trying to be relaxed, as always, and have fun,” Laine said. “I’ve won championships before and I’ve played in playoffs. It’s not something new to me and I know what it requires to play in those types of games.
“When there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line, I like those kinds of games.”