You just knew Connor Hellebuyck was going to bounce back.
After allowing six goals in a loss in Detroit Tuesday night, Hellebuyck turned aside 39 shots as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Buffalo Sabres with a 4-2 win on Thursday night in Western New York.
The Jets were outplayed and outshot 41-27, but Kyle Connor broke a 2-2 deadlock on a breakaway in the third period to propel the Jets to the victory, while handing the Sabres a third straight loss.
“If they did get a chance, they weren’t getting a second rebound,” said Connor. “Obviously, yeah, that was a big goal. Anytime you can capitalize on a breakaway chance like that late in the third, it’s huge.”
The Jets certainly weren’t at their best for the second straight game, but a win is a win, and they’ll take the two points anyway they can get them.
“Listen, it’s an important win after the Detroit game,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “We played a whole lot better in Detroit and lost, than we did tonight, so it did even out.
“They outplayed us. That’s the most chances we’ve given up in a long time. Turnovers and poor coverage in our zone, but again it evened out on this road trip.
“We found a way to get that goal, the third goal, but we have to play a whole lot smarter than that. Listen, there’s no sugar-coating that.”
Hellebuyck made countless big saves in key moments, including one on a puck that bounced around the crease, before he snatched it off the goal line with his pad with a little under two minutes remaining.
“It was a good save, but you know what, I felt three or four guys right there battling with me,” said Hellebuyck. “So, I had the utmost confidence. I looked back and I caught a piece of it on where it was going, and I kinda knew exactly what to do, so, good thing it stayed out.”
With a goal and an assist, Connor stretched his point streak to eight games.
It was Connor’s eighth game-winning goal of the season to tie Leon Draisaitl for the league lead.
“The games on the line and you get a little extra jump in your step,” said Connor. “You want to be the difference maker. You want to score that big goal. I think you can say that for a lot of guys in this room. I know I get up for that.”
Morgan Barron missed the game with the flu, while David Gustafsson also sat out after being placed on injured reserve with an upper-body injury earlier on Thursday.
Forwards Kevin Stenlund and Saku Maenalanen both returned to the lineup. Maenalanen sat out the last 16 games, while Stenlund returned after a one game absence with an illness.
Hellebuyck’s team gave him some early run support at the 6:35 mark of the first. After the Sabres iced the puck, the Jets won the faceoff and the puck made its way around to Dylan Samberg, who scored his second career goal through a screen to open the scoring.
It stayed a one-goal game well into the second period, thanks in large part due to the play of Hellebuyck. But right after a Sabres power play expired, Casey Mittelstadt found Victor Olofsson in the slot and the Swede made no mistake, evening the score.
Buffalo had been carrying the play to that point in the period but off another icing, the Jets again made the Sabres pay. Josh Morrissey beat Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen with a well-placed shot from the point to put Winnipeg back in front through 40 minutes.
That lead disappeared less than three minutes into the third. Olofsson made a great spinning pass to Tyson Jost, who beat Hellebuyck from point-blank range to tie the game.
This kicked off a long stretch of very entertaining play without a whistle as both sides got multiple scoring chances. Blake Wheeler had the best chance for Winnipeg but he was denied in close by Luukkonen, while Hellebuyck had to make a number of great saves.
It all culminated with a Connor breakaway and the Jets’ sniper made no mistake, showing off his great hands by juking his way around the Sabres’ netminder to put Winnipeg ahead at the 7:19 mark.
Buffalo did all they could to try and find another equalizer but Hellebuyck would not be beaten again. Karson Kuhlman’s first as a Jet into an empty net sealed the deal with 43 seconds left.
Hellebuyck was named the first star of the game as he improves to 8-3 on the season following a loss or overtime loss, while Connor’s goal was his 42nd career game-winning goal, building on the franchise record that he recently set.
The Jets will try to finish off the three-game road swing with a win Friday night in Pittsburgh. Pregame coverage begins at 4 p.m. on 680 CJOB with the puck dropping just after 6 p.m.