If we’re being honest, this series is incredibly difficult to predict.
There are a few reasons for this. First off, the St. Louis Blues were once the worst team in the NHL. On the final day of the season, they briefly stood atop the Central Division summit before they were surpassed by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, the latter of who St. Louis takes on in Round 1.
St. Louis had a ridiculous second half of the season, clipping along with a 30-10-5 record since the clock struck midnight at New Years. Winnipeg, by comparison, took a bit of a dump in the same time frame and lost the first-place spot in the Central that they had held for most of the season with an as-near-as-makes-no-difference .500 record of 22-18-3.
Winnipeg’s first-half record was first in the division. St. Louis’ was seventh. And that was pretty much reversed over the course of the second half of the year. The Jets even won the season series 3-1, outscoring the Blues 18-10 in that span, including an 8-4 drubbing where Patrik Laine scored five goals.
But none of those games happened after Jan. 1. The Jets haven’t faced this re-invented Blues team with their sensational rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington.
Binnington began his life as the Blues starter on Jan. 7, posting a shutout, and went on to win 24 of 30 (24-5-1) games he appeared in after that. His save percentage was .927 during that stretch and he finished first in the NHL with a 1.89 goals-against average. It’s in the running for the story of the year in the NHL.
With Winnipeg’s struggles and St. Louis’ successes, you can see why this one appears up in the air.
On paper, you’d take the Jets. On merit, at least right now, you’d probably bet on the Blues.
If Winnipeg has just been conserving the fuel in their gas tank (after running it dry in the Western Conference Final last season), then they’ve pulled the wool over many an eye and could have a pretty good time against St. Louis.
But if the likes of Laine (with one goal in his past 19 games) can’t figure it out, and if Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele (who have played a ton of hockey this season) can’t shoulder the load, then St. Louis will have an edge and an upset (if you can even call it that at this point).
Winnipeg’s secret weapon here might just be the return of defenseman Josh Morrissey, however. One of the NHL’s best shutdown rearguards is slated for a Game 1 return after missing 20 games with a suspected shoulder injury.
Morrissey, alongside Jacob Trouba, form one of the best shutdown pairs in the NHL. And with Dustin Byfuglien now back and acquainted with the game of hockey after missing half the season with separate ankle issues, Winnipeg might be able to finally stem the bleeding on the backend.
It should be mentioned that some have wondered if the Jets are all working off the same page during their struggles. It’s legitimate. Wheeler has mentioned the word maturity a couple times now in the last several weeks. Leadership has been called into question, especially when the team brought back Matt Hendricks, widely regarded as one of the best room guys in the NHL.
These aren’t the things you want to hear from a team that’s considered a Stanley Cup contender. It certainly causes some concern. How much? Who knows.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Wednesday, April 10, 8 p.m.: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | SN, TVAS, NHL Network
Friday, April 12, 9:30 p.m.: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | SN, TVAS, CNBC
Sunday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 9:30 p.m.: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | CNBC, SN, TVAS
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | TBD
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Winnipeg @ St. Louis | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: St. Louis @ Winnipeg | TBD
BLUES: A big key to this series is if Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly can keep leading the team on the scoresheet. Both players, especially Tarasenko, were big reasons why the team won games at the other end of the ice.
It should be noted that the Blues have 13 players with at least 10 goals this season. Sure, that includes a couple defensemen, but it shows they have depth behind the two mentioned above. The Blues need to carry possession and work within the structure that’s got them to where they are. That means being stingy on the backend and turning that into offense the other way.
JETS: If Laine had 10 more goals, you’d be calling this a wash for Winnipeg. It probably still is, given the robust nature of their talent up front. Laine only scored 30 this season, which happens when one of the hottest shots in the NHL finds itself stuck in a deep freeze.
Scheifele led the Jets with 38 markers and probably would have hit 40 is not for slow down at the end of the year. Still, he had a career year and his playoffs last season, before the Jets were bounced, were a display of dominance. If he can rekindle that, that will go a long way in this season. Should also mention Wheeler’s 71 assists, a franchise mark from the elite passer.
Winnipeg’s biggest question here is if they’ll find that depth scoring (and if Laine can figure it out). The Jets brought in Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline and will be looking to him to shoulder some of that, along with Nikolaj Ehlers
ADVANTAGE: WINNIPEG: The Jets’ scoring talent is just better. They just need to actually use that talent.
BLUES: The Blues allowed the fourth fewest shots against this season, which has certainly allowed Binnington to ease into his new role as starter.
The truth of the matter is St. Louis has a sound defense, one that has contributed to the sixth fewest goals allowed in 2018-19. That’s remarkable, given how bad the Blues were prior to their turnaround. Names like Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko chew up minutes, and they have depth, too, with Jay Bouwmeester, Joel Edmundson, Vince Dunn, Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo.
They’re a formidable backend that doesn’t give up a lot of shots, including some of the lowest high-danger chances allowed at five-on-five.
JETS: Without Josh Morrissey, this team would have had major issues, but it appears he will return from a 24-game hiatus due to injury to rejoin Trouba on the top pairing. That’s big news for the Jets, but one can’t help but wonder if the Jets defensive lapses will still continue.
Wheeler mentioned a lack of maturity in this group a couple times down the stretch. It extends to the whole team, of course, but Winnipeg’s defense needs to get it together here.
ADVANTAGE: ST. LOUIS: The numbers don’t lie. St. Louis is a shot-suppressing monster.
BLUES: Binningt…. Winnington has put together a run since he got his first NHL start on Jan. 7 that would win him the Calder if those voting stopped worrying about the ‘you need to play x games’ thing.
Binnington has played enough to warrant consideration for a couple of year-end awards, and if he continues that torrid run, he’s going to give Winnipeg fits. The Jets ran up against a white-hot Marc-Andre Fleury in the WCF last year and couldn’t solve him. If Binnington can be that unsolvable puzzle, then that’s going to be tough. But he’s never played on this stage, so there’s that, too.
JETS: Connor Hellebuyck is nowhere near his runner-up Vezina form that he was in last season. But, Hellebuyck has played lately like his runner-up Vezina form that he was in last season. A 9.13 save percentage during the season is nothing to write home about, but his .930 over his final 10 appearances certainly is.
That’s key here. Hellebuyck got some rest throughout the season and it appears to be paying off at a very good time. Hellebuyck can have his moments, and he shouldn’t be allowed to play the puck, but he’s been the model of consistency for a bit now.
Can he outduel Binnginton? That’s the question.
ADVANTAGE: WINNIPEG. It might be crazy, but I’m taking Winnipeg. I think Hellebuyck’s experience slightly edges Binnginton’s lack of it. The stakes get much higher now and Hellebuyck has proven he can handle them in the past. There’s plenty of faith that Binnington’s stone-cold demeanor can do the same, but we need to see it first, just to be sure.
ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM
Can Binnington handle the playoff pressure?
It’s one thing to win the in the regular season. It’s another to win in the playoffs. Binnington, as mentioned above, has been a revelation for St. Louis, but the real pressure begins on Wednesday. Is he up to the task?
Will Winnipeg find its stride?
It’s been a while since Winnipeg could be called rightful Stanley Cup contender. Their recent play just doesn’t earn the distinction. If they can find their quickness, they’re nearly unbeatable (a 5-0 win against Nashville down the stretch was proof of that). If not, the series is anyone’s guess.
JETS IN 6. While Winnipeg has struggled on the back nine, it’s hard to write them off just yet. If they turn up the quickness dial, they’re going to cause all sorts of problems for the Blues, no matter how good Binnginton can be.
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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck