By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Connor Hellebuyck doesn’t think the Winnipeg Jets feel like underdogs as they head into the first round of the NHL playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Jets battled to grab the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference and travel to play the top-seeded Golden Knights in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Tuesday.
“You can feel the belief in this room,” Hellebuyck said after he skipped being in net for the team’s optional skate Saturday. “Everyone is fighting hard for each other and believing in each other. When you have a team like that, anything is possible.
“And in playoffs, anything can happen. Just because we are the eighth seed, it doesn’t mean that we’re the worst. Anything can happen and that’s the mindset we are taking into it.”
The Jets were in first place in the conference in January, but sputtered after the all-star break. They finished the regular season 46-33-3 and went 5-2-0 in their past seven games to earn the playoff ticket.
Hellebuyck was a big reason for that successful run and his teammates have extra confidence knowing the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner is between the pipes.
“I think coming down the stretch, he played magnificent,” forward Adam Lowry said. “He gave us a chance to win every night. He gave us a chance in tight games, where the offence was struggling or whatever.
“He gave us the opportunity to find our game. I think the way our team has looked the last couple weeks, we really like where we’re at.”
Hellebuyck started 13 straight games before David Rittich took his spot for Winnipeg’s final 4-2 regular-season loss to Colorado. Hellebuyck finished with a league-leading 64 starts and a 37-25-2 record that included four shutouts. His .920 save percentage ranked fifth and his 2.49 goals against average was 11th.
The Golden Knights captured the conference title with a 51-22-9 record (their 111 points set a franchise record) and roll into the playoffs on an eight-game point streak (5-0-3).
The Jets lost the three-game season series (0-2-1) between the clubs, but their last meeting was a 6-5 Vegas win in Nevada way back on Dec. 13.
Injuries caused the Golden Knights to use five goalies this season and it’s expected Laurent Brossoit will start the playoffs. He was the understudy to Hellebuyck during three seasons in Winnipeg (2018-21).
Brossoit hasn’t lost in regulation this season. The Port Alberni, B.C., product played 11 games and went 7-0-3, including five straight victories to end the season.
Hellebuyck said he and Brossoit remain good friends, but he hasn’t texted him recently.
“But I might send him one telling him to look out because I’m coming for him,” Hellebuyck said with a smile.
Vegas also has veteran goalie Jonathan Quick, acquired in a trade with Columbus a day after he was dealt to the Blue Jackets from Los Angeles. He went 5-2-2 in nine starts with the Golden Knights. Logan Thompson could also be available.
Vegas and Winnipeg have some playoff history. The teams competed in the 2018 conference final. The first-year expansion Golden Knights claimed the series in five games and lost the Stanley Cup final to the Washington Capitals.
Redemption doesn’t appear to play a role in the Jets’ motivation.
“It’s two different coaches on both sides, a lot of different players, and it’s five years removed, so there’s some same players but there’s also a lot of changeover,” Jets all-star defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “I don’t really think there’s much to do with five years ago.”
Both teams missed the playoffs last season and regrouped by hiring new head coaches; Rick Bowness for the Jets and Bruce Cassidy for Vegas.
Jets veteran defenceman Nate Schmidt has ties to both clubs. He played three seasons for the Golden Knights from 2017-20 and this time he wants a series victory with Winnipeg.
“Let’s keep that record clean,” he said with a big smile. “I love that. I think with this group, we were going to have to face this team sometime anyways, might as well do it now, get it going early.”
The Jets should have their full complement of sharp shooters for the series.
Speedy forward Nikolaj Ehlers missed the last game after a hit by Minnesota’s Ryan Hartman in Tuesday’s 3-1 Winnipeg victory that clinched the playoff spot.
Ehlers didn’t skate Saturday but said he’s ready to play. Bowness was considering him day-to-day.
Kyle Connor led Winnipeg’s scoring with 31 goals and 80 points in 82 games. Mark Scheifele registered a career-high 42 goals and had 61 points in 81 games.
Jack Eichel, who’ll be competing in his first playoffs, topped the Golden Knights’ scoring with 27 goals and 66 points in 67 games. Jonathan Marchessault had a team-leading 28 goals and 57 points in 76 games.