When the Vegas Golden Knights, in conjunction with the National Hockey League, held the first expansion draft since 2000, Penguins fans knew it was inevitable that beloved goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would leave Pittsburgh for the desert.
But no one knew that a rag tag group of hockey “misfits,” jettisoned out of their respective franchises out of necessity would now be skating into the Western Conference Final Saturday Night.
Fleury has been outstanding between the pipes. With eight wins and four shutout, he’s been the backbone of the Golden Knights throughout the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Saturday, he’ll face his counterpart for Winnipeg, Connor Hellebuyck, who got his start in the North American Hockey League with the Odessa Jackalopes.
It wasn’t an easy road for Hellebuyck to get to Texas let alone Manitoba.
A native of Commerce, Mich., Hellebuyck played four years of high school hockey. He went undrafted in the United States Hockey League and he was not drafted by any team in the North American Hockey League.
He tried out for the Jackalopes, who were entering their inaugural season in 2011-12 and the rest they say is history.
Hellebuyck backstopped Odessa to a playoff appearance while playing 53 regular season games. He posted a 2.49 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. And for his efforts, he was named to the All-NAHL team, All-Rookie First team and the All-South Division team.
He all shared the Rookie of the Year and Goaltender of the Year awards.
Later that year at the 2012 NHL Draft, the Winnipeg Jets used a fifth-round selection on Hellebuyck, who was committed to UMass-Lowell.
After two seasons of college hockey, he earned an opportunity in the Jets’ farm system, starting out in St. John’s, Newfoundland before earning a regular spot in 2016-17.
This season, he is the vital part of a young, surging Jets team that knocked off the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators and will face the veteran Fleury’s Golden Knights.
The League of Opportunity worked out for Hellebuyck who has the opportunity to lead Winnipeg to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance.