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Jets vs Wild: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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A rivalry that needed a playoff meeting to really cement its status will finally add that chapter when the puck drops between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

The Jets and Wild have been divisional rivals for a few years now and the bad blood has grown during that time, but this will be the first time both teams meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — a chance for the hatred to grow.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The series will feature a team heavy with playoff experience and another with a bunch of excited players who’ve seen limited time in the postseason.

The Wild boast a roster with a combined 748 playoffs games, that compares to the Jets’ 265. Several of Winnipeg’s roster, including 44-goal man Patrik Laine, 32-goal rookie forward Kyle Connor and 44-game winner Connor Hellebuyck, will make their playoff debut on Friday. So while the Jets are favorites to take the series in the end, it may take a period or two for half the team to settle into a new style of hockey.

Winnipeg enters the postseason relatively healthy, although they’ll be missing Toby Enstrom (ankle) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) on the blue line to start the playoffs (with Kulikov much further away from returning than Enstrom). The addition of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline has been instrumental for the Jets, who have a centre that has figured out how to play with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The Wild, meanwhile, won’t have Ryan Suter for the entirety of their playoff run after the defenseman needed surgery to fix a fractured ankle. Suter averaged 26:47 of ice time per game during the regular season, second only to Drew Doughty‘s 26:50. Simply put, it’s a big hole to fill against one of the league’s hottest offensive teams.

The Jets took the season series 3-1-0, beating the Wild twice in October in one-goal wins before pounding them 7-2 in November. In their final meeting back in January, the Wild picked up a 4-1 decision.

There are several storylines attached to this series, so let’s dive right in.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Jets: Winnipeg’s bread and butter. The Jets finished second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals-for with 273 and boasted a lineup with a 44-goal scorer in Laine, a 31-goal scorer in Connor and 29 markers from Ehlers. Blake Wheeler tied for the NHL-lead with 68 assists in a career-year. And the Jets found secondary scoring throughout, with eight of their 12 forwards in double-digits in goal-scoring. As you’d expect, a team that put up as much offense as the Jets would also look good in the analytics department. And they do. Winnipeg finished 10th in terms of shot share at 51.5 percent and fourth in goals-for percentage at 54.6 percent.

Wild: Minnesota is no slouch in the goal-scoring department. Eric Staal turned back the clock this season and scored 42 times and Jason Zucker tallied 33 times. The Wild finished 11th in goal scoring and averaged over three goals per game, but lacked when it came to shot share, finishing 29th in the league with 47.2 percent. They were 12th in goals-for percentage, however, at 52.2 percent. Zach Parise has been a force since the beginning of March.

Advantage: Jets, but this is closer than one might think given one team hs a guy named Laine.

DEFENSE

Jets: The Jets are missing Enstrom and Kulikov to start and will depend on Joe Morrow (a trade deadline acquisition) and Ben Chiarot to keep up their solid play in relief. The top pairing of Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey will be tasked with shutting down the Wild’s offense. Despite significant injuries to the aforementioned Kulikov, Enstrom and Trouba throughout the season, the Jets still managed to fifth least goals-against in the league.

Wild: We talked about Suter in the introduction and his absence will be felt, but the pending return of Jared Spurgeon who missed 12 games to close out the regular season, is a welcome addition and should soften the blow, even if only slightly. The Wild finished 11th in fewest goals-against this season and have an offensive weapon with Matt Dumba, who recorded 50 points. That said, Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler are in tough if Spurgeon isn’t ready to go.

Advantage: Give it to the Jets as they’re not missing a top-pairing defensemen. It’s close, but Suter’s skates are impossible to fill.

GOALTENDING

Jets: The Jets signed Steve Mason in the offseason in hopes he’d be the teams No. 1. But 82 games later and it was Hellebuyck who had taken the No. 1 role and never gave it back in a Vezina-worthy campaign where he posted a .924 save percentage while setting a new franchise-high with 44 wins. Hellebuyck had six shutouts on the year and became the winningest American born goaltender and tied a league record with 30 wins at home.

Wild: Dubnyk posted 35 wins in 59 starts and put up a .918 save percentage and has 21 games of playoff experience to his name. Dubnyk had his struggles at times this seasons, but was effective nonetheless, especially at home where he only lost six games in regulation.

Side note: Hellebuyck and Dubnyk share the same trainer, Adam Francilia, at NET 360 in Kelowna, British Columbia. Both trained together in the summer and are good friends. But Dubnyk said this week that their friendship will go out the door for this series. 

Advantage: Hellebuyck, at least on paper. Dubnyk has the benefit of playoff experience while Hellebuyck has the luxury of home-ice advantage. Give it to the sophomore, but this is close.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jets: They call him a cheat code on the power play, a near-exact replica of Alex Ovechkin with all the same lethality from Ovi’s office. Laine led the league with 20 power play goals to help the Jets to the fifth-best power play in the NHL at 23.4 percent. Winnipeg’s much-improved penalty kill, meanwhile, saw them finish ninth with an 81.8 percent success rate.

Wild: The Wild do not have have a cheat code, but Staal chipped in with 11 power play goals this season. That said, Minnesota’s power play ranked 18th in terms of its success rate at 20.4 percent. On the penalty kill, the Wild only trail by half a percent, or as near as makes no difference.

Advantage: Jets. Laine tips the scales here with both penalty kills virtual identical.

X-FACTORS

Jets: Hellebuyck. He’s played the most minutes out of any other goaltender in the NHL this season yet was as steady as they come. He’s brushed aside questions of fatigue and got some rest down the stretch. Hellebuyck has been calm, cool and collected in the lead up to Wednesday’s opener. He lacks playoff experience, but if he plays the way he did this season, it shouldn’t matter.

Wild: Spurgeon’s health. He softens the blow in the wake of Suter’s season-ending injury and provides the Wild with another scoring threat on the blue line. The Jets own arguably the best offense in the league and Minnesota is going to need all the help it can get trying to contain it.

PREDICTION

Jets in six games. The loss of Suter can’t be understated, nor can the skill of the Winnipeg Jets.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”

Predators facing difficult road in playoff push

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Take a quick glance at the Nashville Predators’ spot in the Western Conference standings and it would be easy to conclude that they are in a lot of trouble when it comes to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, they remain six points out of a playoff spot with four teams still ahead of them in the Wild Card race. Recent history suggests their chances of overcoming that deficit this late in the season would be very, very low (like under 20 percent low) because of how difficult it is to gain ground in the standings. Keep in mind that at this same point in the season last year the St. Louis Blues were only two points out of a playoff spot before going on their second half run to a championship. It’s just not something that’s easy to do.

The one thing the Predators have going for them is the fact they have more games remaining than any other team in the Western Conference, with multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing. That helps.

That is a point that forward Matt Duchene emphasized on Monday before their game against Toronto, while also talking about how he thinks the team as currently constructed can make up that gap without needing any outside help.

Via NHL.com:

“We love our group in here. I think everyone is happy with the talent we have, and it’s time to start playing the way we’re capable of. I don’t think we’re really missing anything in this room. We’re not looking at [the trade deadline] right now. We’re looking at the task at hand, and this is our group.”

“You look at us right now. You know it looks bad on paper, but with the games in hand we have, we have a great opportunity to put a little streak together here,” Duchene said.

He’s not wrong. The games in hand are a great opportunity for them, but it’s a little more complicated than just having some extra games remaining.

First, even if the Predators win all of those extra games they would still fall short of a playoff spot given their current pace. They would still need to make a couple of points somewhere else the rest of the way.

Here are the teams in the wild card race at the moment, as well as their current point paces.

They have two head-to-head games remaining against Arizona and Vegas. Winning those in regulation would be very important for the Predators’ chances.

Complicating matters even more is that the extra games in hand comes with a built-in drawback. They are playing more games in a shorter period of time, which means a condensed schedule, more back-to-backs, and less rest the rest of the way. As the folks at Predators blog On The Forecheck noted this week, the Predators have a league-high eight sets of back-to-backs remaining this season. In four of those back-to-backs, they will be playing a road game against a team that is rested, also tied for the most in the league. Those are not easy games to win.

Adding to all of that is the fact the Predators’ remaining opponents currently have a points percentage of .572, tied for the third-toughest remaining schedule in the league. They also play the majority of their games on the road.

It’s asking a lot to get through that and make up the necessary ground in the playoff race.

This remains a somewhat baffling team.

Their 5-on-5 performance has been mostly outstanding, and exactly what you would expect from a contending team with the roster that looks this good on paper. They control the pace of the game and have one of the league’s best 5-on-5 goal differentials. They take care of business when the game is even-strength.

It’s when the game turns into a special teams and goaltending matchup that they are unable to matchup with anyone.

The latter point — goaltending — has to be the big concern down the stretch. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros both have sub-.900 save percentages on the team (both mostly hurt by their performance on the penalty kill) and given the tight schedule the rest of the way they are both going to have to play, and play a lot. Better performances from both — especially on the penalty kill — would solve a lot of the Predators’ perceived problems.

Trouble is, even if that happens the team has given itself such a big deficit to overcome, with an unforgiving schedule the rest of the way, that it is still going to take quite a run over the next few weeks to get back in this.

The door is still open, but it is closing fast.

More NHL coverage

NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues’ recipe for success hasn’t changed in quest for Cup repeat

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ST. LOUIS — There was one thing Craig Berube wanted to focus on during his first training camp leading the Blues. With his players going deep into June en route to winning the Stanley Cup, the head coach wanted to keep his practices short. After playing 108 games last season, he was aware of the effects of two extra months of hockey.

Instead of longer skates to shake out the summer rust, Berube and his staff kept them short, fast and intense.

Berube also did not place any special attention on hammering home one particular message: avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover. A short off-season that featured plenty of celebrating the franchise’s first championship wasn’t one of his major concerns.

“I don’t think we went into camp with that focus,” Berube told NBC Sports. “We went into camp with getting going again and getting the skating and working. I thought our guys came in great shape and I thought we had really good practices in training camp.”

Roster consistency — Patrick Maroon was the only face gone from the Cup-winning team when camp opened — was also a key that helped drive the Blues off to a strong start to the 2019-20 season. (Joel Edmundson exited week later in a trade that brought Justin Faulk to St. Louis.)

The players walked into that dressing room and saw the same faces that were on the ice that Gloria-ous night in Boston. The way the Blues put a forgettable first few months of last season behind them and started a run in January that ended with a title showed how the chemistry finally came together. Keeping the roster pretty much intact ensured little need to get across an understanding of what made them successful.

“That helps a lot. That really helps us get to our identity,” said forward Ryan O’Reilly. “We kind of know what our best game looks like. We know as individuals what guys can do. It’s easy to have the communication and talk to each other and make the adjustments when we need to and lean on each other in certain ways at those crucial times.”

The Blues entered the NHL All-Star Break with 30 wins in 49 games and the second-best record by points percentage (.643) in the league. Their biggest skid happened right off the bat with losses in five of their first eight game of the season — three of which came in overtime or the shootout. That was followed by a stretch of nine wins in 10 games, setting them on the right course to a first half of dominance in the Western Conference. Not to mention the success has come without the services of Vladimir Tarasenko, who played only 10 games and won’t return until April.

Stanley Cup champions can fall prey to a hangover as they begin their defense, but that didn’t hit the Blues for too long. The 29 points earned in their first 20 games is the third-best start for any defending champion since 2006-07. Only the 2008-09 Red Wings (32 points) and 2013-14 Blackhawks (29 points) had better starts.

Defending Stanley Cup champions in their first 20 games since 2006-07 NHL season.

“Over that whole process of last year, of starting with the low point and building our way back up, finding our identity, getting in the playoffs, keep building from there, we really found something in ourselves that we kind of knew how to turn on when we needed to,” said O’Reilly. “That carried over into this year where we know it’s not going to be the same thing. We’re going to have to do this thing a different way. It’s going to be tough because teams are gunning for us, but we just have to find a way to always keep reinventing ourselves — get to our identity, playing hard, build our game from there. We just really paid attention to the details when we needed to.”

The Blues have gone from being the hunter to the hunted now. Every team wants to beat the defending champs, especially their Central Division rivals who are looking to make up ground in the playoff race. Berube’s hammered home the fact that they have targets on their backs and complacency is not an option. They don’t want to waste such a good first half and they understand there’s still a lot of hockey left to play.

“We haven’t had any easy games. We really haven’t,” said Berube, who noted he’s not thinking beyond the regular season at all. “There’s been tough games, no matter who we play, it always a hard game. I think our guys have bought into that and they’re understanding that more and more as it goes along. We’ve got a long way to go yet, we’ve got a lot of hockey to play and we’re going to have to play good hockey. Everybody’s going to be fighting now. Everybody’s going to be dialed in, fighting for a playoff spot, positioning, all that. All these games coming down the stretch are going to be tough.”

The messages Berube delivers every day continue working. He took over a team in Nov. 2018 that was lacking confidence, something he pointed out in his opening press conference. Slowly the turn around began and the players bought in big time. It paid off, as we know, so it’s no surprise that the success has continued into this season. The plan was put in place long ago and no one has deviated it from it. That’s why the Blues are a serious threat to repeat.

“What worked for him last year works for him this year,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “That’s been pretty much the recipe for our entire group. We found something that works from the coaching staff all the way down and we’ve stuck with it.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Penguins give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.