High-flying offense has propelled streaking Jets, but there’s one piece missing

Winnipeg is one of the hottest teams in the league with the holiday break approaching thanks in large part to an unstoppable offense. But the Jets could leave no doubt about their status as Stanley Cup contenders if Connor Hellebuyck finds his form.
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There was something so wonderfully nonchalant about the way Mark Scheifele celebrated scoring the overtime winner for the Winnipeg Jets Sunday night.

After firing a rebound past Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, Scheifele held his arms out, as if embracing the throngs of screaming fans packed inside Bell MTS Place as he glided slowly towards the boards. There were no wild fist pumps, no one-knee slides. Heck, Scheifele’s face barely even showed any emotion. It was as if he hadn’t just scored the game-winning goal in a contest that likely saw even the most heart-healthy Jets fans suffering some concerning palpitations.

Maybe Scheifele’s somewhat subdued celebration was the result of this kind of thing — these one-goal, nail-biting victories in high-scoring affairs — becoming the norm, though, because it’s seemingly been the winning formula for a Winnipeg team that has risen to the top of the Western Conference on the strength of one of the best runs in the NHL.

Indeed, despite boasting an outstanding 9-1-0 record over their past 10 games, Winnipeg hasn’t exactly made life easy on its fans. Of the nine victories, six have come in one-goal games — seven if you exclude a seconds-left empty-netter scored in a 3-1 defeat of the New York Islanders in early December — with five outings needing extra time. That includes a stretch of three consecutive overtime victories, Scheifele scoring the winner in the past two. Time and again of late, Winnipeg has been saved by its firepower in what have felt like some next-goal-wins style affairs, and that firepower has been significant.

Dating back to Nov. 24, when Winnipeg snapped its lone two-game skid of the season by rolling into St. Louis and blowing out the Blues, the Jets have had one of the most prolific attacks in the NHL. Across their past dozen games, Winnipeg has scored 54 goals, a rate of 4.5 per game, which puts the Jets into a three-way tie with the Lightning and Washington Capitals for tops in the league over that span. And it hasn’t been just one or two players clicking. Everyone is chipping in right now.

Since that contest against the Blues, Scheifele is the league’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 23 points in 12 games. Blake Wheeler isn’t far behind with two goals and 19 points of his own. Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien boast double-digit point totals while producing at better than a point per game across the Jets’ past dozen games, as well, while six others, including Mathieu Perreault, Bryan Little and Kyle Connor, are half-point per game players or better since Nov. 24.

But that doesn’t mean all is going according to plan in Winnipeg.

While the Jets, who were one of the league’s best defensive clubs last season with the fifth-lowest goals against total, remain in the top-third of the league in goal prevention with the holiday break approaching, Winnipeg’s defensive numbers have been on the decline of late. In their past 15 games, the Jets have allowed three or more goals against in all but three contests, which came in early December when Winnipeg allowed a single goal against in three consecutive games. Since Nov. 19, only three teams have allowed more goals against. And the issue has been between the pipes.

Over the better part of the past month, Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit have struggled to shut the door. Combined, the duo has managed a mere .900 save percentage, and Hellebuyck’s .899 SP over his past 11 outings is especially concerning. As the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last season, it was expected that Hellebuyck’s play would be the least of the Jets’ concerns this season, that he would again challenge for top goaltender honors and be essential to Winnipeg’s success. Instead, his numbers — and his play — has slipped noticeably.

Through 25 games this season, Hellebuyck has complied a healthy 15-8-1 record, but his SP has experienced a 16-point dive compared to his .924 SP at season’s end in 2017-18 and his current mark is 14 points shy of the .920 SP Hellebuyck had at the 25-game mark last season. Additionally, Hellebuyck’s actual 5-on-5 SP, .907, is slightly more than nine points lower than his expected SP, according to Corsica. Last season, Hellebuyck outplayed his expected performance at 5-on-5 by nearly one and a half points. This isn’t to mention, either, that Hellebuyck’s current goals-saved above average, minus-5.3, is almost a full seven goals worse than his end-of-season total last year and is the 10th-worst total among the 48 goaltenders to play at least 500 minutes this season.

And while it’d be nice to take the onus off of Hellebuyck and Brossoit, it’s difficult to do so when, from a statistical perspective, there’s not much that would indicate Winnipeg was due for some sizeable increase in goals against.

Comparing last season’s 5-on-5 rates to this season doesn’t indicate any wild swings in defensive play. Possession rates have remained largely the same, as have shot and scoring chance rates and the corresponding percentages. Even early season rates compared to those over the past few weeks don’t present any statistical evidence that there’s been a downturn in the team’s ability to shutdown the opposition. If anything, actually, the Jets have been better in recent weeks than they were in the opening weeks of the campaign, improving shot attempt suppression and scoring chance suppression while seeing an overall rise in most major underlying percentages.

Ideally, though, the Jets won’t continue on this way. While the ability to win despite inconsistency in the crease has been impressive and led to the realization that Winnipeg seemingly isn’t in the same boat as other as-goes-the-goaltending clubs, Hellebuyck is as key a cog in the Jets’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup as any other player. And given his second-half surge last season, where he posted a .927 SP from Dec. 27 onward, Winnipeg will be hoping their Vezina-calibre keeper arrives come the second half of the season, as that may very well be the final piece of the puzzle for a club that already looks primed to play deep into the post-season.

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