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Winnipeg Jets, goaltending, and the playoffs

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The Jets greatest weakness now seems to be their strength.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The Winnipeg Jets are winning hockey games with a surprising regularity and it is how they are doing it that is important. They are winning with goaltending. Why is this so important? Because for years they lost winnable games because their goalie could not stop a beachball or let in a goal when the Jets could ill-afford it.

The turnaround in the Jets goaltending is a lovely surprise as it came in the form of Connor Hellebuyck and not Steve Mason. Part of this is because Mason is now injured, but it originally stems from Mason’s slow start coupled with Hellebuyck starting the season on fire. When Mason started getting chances to play after the Jets went through a stretch of games with multiple days off in between, he showed that he was also up to snuff and should get more playing time in the near future unless he is unavailable to play.

Thankfully, the Jets will not have to make any serious decisions on their goaltending this year. Eric Comrie is not waiver eligible as he has six years (until he is 24) and 80 NHL games to play in. Since he is at neither of those milestones, it appears that the Jets can afford to stash him in the AHL for another season until Mason’s contract has run it’s course. This means they can retain Hellebuyck as well and for once actually have good goaltending.

The Winnipeg Jets as a whole have not been playing that great, but in past seasons this would have ruined them completely because they have never had the goaltending to bail them out. Now that they are starting to play better, the goaltending is there to help the Jets maintain their good play. It is an odd position for the Jets to be in as they have struggled for years to get NHL-average goaltending never mind the goaltending they have gotten this year.

In some ways, Hellebuyck’s play was unexpected this year. He looked nothing like the big and boring goalie who made his NHL debut the season before. Over the summer, he worked with a new goalie coach who seems to have reset him and the Jets have worked closely with this coach as well. Whatever the set up, it has worked for all parties and Hellebuyck looks big, boring, and downright good in net.

On the other hand, Mason’s play is almost predictable. According to Philadelphia Flyers fans, he is at his best when playing in a tandem situation. He is currently in that situation and hopefully he will be able to remain in that situation once he returns from injury. He was not the perfect signing for a team that has struggled to find a starting goalie over the years, but he is way better than if they traded for Mike Smith or Marc-Andre Fleury as his contract is smaller than both of them.

For once the Winnipeg Jets seem like a legitimate playoff team and much of that has come down to goaltending. Goaltending that was winning them games early in the season when it seemed like the Jets were not built to win games. The Jets have steadily improved without the goaltending taking a step back. The fact that the Jets are now looking like a legitimate team is excellent for a franchise that is still sitting without a single playoff win to their credit.