Jets hope to fly by Stars

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- After a commitment throughout the organization to make the playoffs this year, the Winnipeg Jets are making early-season believers out of their long-suffering fans.

Going into a Thursday night home tilt against the Dallas Stars, the Jets are 6-3-2 with 14 points. The Stars (7-5-0) are tied in points with the Jets but have played one more game.

Perhaps the Jets' most pleasant surprise is the play of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who struggled mightily in his sophomore season last year. A vigorous summer of training is paying early dividends as the 24-year-old is among the league leaders in the key goalie categories.

He is 6-0-1 with a 1.91 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. Last season, he was 26-19-4 with a 2.89 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

After stopping 28 shots in a 2-1 road victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, Hellebuyck said he relished the frantic push that the Wild made, outshooting the Jets 12-2 in the third period.

"That's the fun of the game, battling it out, and I think it shows a lot of character in (our dressing room)," Hellebuyck said. "I had to take a drink of water and get focused because the next five minutes were going to be hectic."

Hellebuyck was at his best when he bailed his teammates out of five minor penalties, something that didn't go unnoticed by captain Blake Wheeler.

"Your goalie has got to be your best penalty-killer," Wheeler told the Winnipeg Free Press. "(Hellebuyck) has been great. He's big in that net right now. He's playing with a lot of confidence."

The Stars come to Winnipeg having split the first four games of a five-game Western Canada road trip, but they should be in great frame of mind. The team spent a couple of days in Kelowna and Whistler as a diversion from the daily grind and to help the players bond.

Coach Ken Hitchcock believes the side trips will pay dividends down the road.

"You don't have cars and buses taking you everywhere," he told the Dallas News. "You're going to walk to dinner, you're going to walk to the rink. You're going to walk back to the hotel. I think there's a lot to say for that. I think the players get to hang together, and when I look at this, this is the last time we'll do this for a long time. You've got to build as good a bond as you can because you're going to need it."

The Stars went on their team-bonding excursion after Alexander Radulov scored the game-winning goal 2:32 into overtime on Monday in a 2-1 victory at Vancouver.

Radulov is among four players with double-digit points for the Stars. Jamie Benn leads the team with seven goals and 14 points, making the side trip more enjoyable for the Dallas captain, who won a Western Hockey League title in 2008 in Kelowna.

"We've got a lot of great memories in this rink," Benn told the Dallas News. "I think the last time I skated on this ice, it was overtime when we won the title. It was a great experience for me, and I really enjoyed my time here."

Updated November 2, 2017

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