Limping into the playoffs, Jets still confident vs. Blues

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WINNIPEG — Somewhere along the line, the Winnipeg Jets lost their way.

It’s as if the search for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs had been called off early. By Christmas Day, they already knew they’d be there. Firmly planted in first place in the Central Division, and with only one real threat to their throne to be seen, the Jets switched on autopilot somewhere around New Year’s Day. They had hit cruising altitude and kicked back to enjoy the flight.

Winnipeg proved a year earlier that they could be a dominant side. A season with 52 wins is a statement, and they made it. A four-point lead for first place in the Central on New Year’s Eve in the following season was further affirmation. A step forward. Winnipeg were the top dogs in the division. They won the territorial scrap in Game 7 in the second round of last year’s playoffs against the Nashville Predators. They owned the yard now and surpassed the Predators as Central favorites — and by extension, Cup darlings.

But the turbulence hit, and it struck hard, flinging around a Jets team that hadn’t experienced much adversity up until that point.

First, Dustin Byfuglien went down. Then he came back but was thrown to the sidelines once again a week later. Josh Morrissey was next 10 days after that. Byfuglien would miss 34 of the next 39 games and Morrissey would sit for the final 20.

The resulting tailspin exposed Winnipeg’s lack of adequate depth on defense. Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline day acquisition did his best Morrissey impression, but the Jets were forced to run Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov harder, and it showed.

Third-period leads weren’t a safe bet any longer. The Jets, who were 42-1-1 when leading after two periods a year earlier, finished with nine losses in the same scenario this season.

And that first place spot they held for much of the year was finally relinquished in Game 81 and they had to settle for second place in the division and a whole lot of wounds that needed to be licked.

Two devastating injuries mixed with a shot of complacency was a tonic the Jets ended up drinking.

“I think last year we were so set on proving ourselves,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday. “We’ve only been in the playoffs once and it was a short time. We really wanted to show that we could be a contender and we weren’t used to being in that position.

“[This year], we got off to such a good start that maybe a little complacency set in. But at the same time, you lose Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien at the same time and those are big holes to fill on the backend. I think the loss of both of those guys can’t be understated. They’re huge contributors to our team. Obviously, being comfortably in a playoff position since, basically, January, you kind of know where you’re going to be at the end of the year.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The eyes met the math with the Jets and their two halves to the season showed wildly different teams:

Jets from opening day to Dec. 31
50.91 CF% (10th)
50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
47.22 CF% (25th)
45.01 xGF% (30th)

An 18-goal month of November by Patrik Laine had him firmly planted where many felt he would be: racing Alex Ovechkin — Laine’s boyhood idol — to the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Laine had 24 goals as of Jan.1. He’d finish the season with 30, which is about all you need to know about how much of a struggle the second half was for the sniper.

Laine admitted Tuesday that he had a tough regular season. He didn’t really need to say the words, however. His body language outside of a stretch of three games where he had four goals, told the whole story. Dejected Laine had been seen around these parts before, but not nearly as long has he stuck around this time.

The 20-year-old Finn ended the season with one goal in 19 games.

“Well, based on my goal scoring it’s obviously not that high,” Laine said of his confidence meter.

Asked if he’s been studying the tendencies of rookie sensation Jordan Binnington, Laine smiled.

“I’ll probably watch something, but right now with my confidence I’ll just try to hit the net,” he said. “I think I had a tough regular season and playoffs are different. Now it doesn’t matter who scores, at least if somebody scores that’s good for us. Hopefully, I can help the team win. If it’s not goals, then something else. But there’s a lot of things we can do.”

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In a game that seemed to be more of an aberration than anything, the Jets trounced the Predators 5-0 in the middle of March.

In that game, Winnipeg’s potential was on full display. Their quickness dictated the game, stifling the Predators at every juncture. There was no let-up, either. They simply throttled a team many believe has the best defense in the show.

The Jets have been preaching from the pulpit and using that game as one this season where they displayed the ferocity they believe they can unleash beginning on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Winnipeg’s run-in was so poor and St. Louis’ was so good (although the difference in wins between both teams was actually just one), however, that St. Louis has been pegged by many as the favorites to move on.

And there’s merit to that.

Winnipeg’s record over the second half of the season would have had them sitting in a fight for a wildcard spot. No team not named the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record than St. Louis, who leaned on fantastic shot suppression and brilliant goaltending. The tables flipped, but the Jets feel certain they’re ready to up the ante.

“I think you’re going to see a team that’s been able to get up for the big games against really good teams all year,” Lowry said, listing of specifics, such as their win against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the year, among other battles.

“We know the team we are,” Mark Scheifele added.

Scheifele was an unstoppable force through two rounds last season and put up career-year numbers this year.

“We had our good stretches, our bad stretches,” he said. “We know what makes us a good team. It’s about putting it on the ice. It’s not about talking about it, saying what we’re going to do. It all comes down to putting it on the ice. Walking the walk.”

The Jets didn’t get the Vezina runner-up goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck as they did in 2017-18. Part of that was so-so start and was followed up by some big losses on the blue line. Hellebuyck has returned to that form, however. In his final 10 appearances of the season, Hellebuyck put up a .930 save percentage.

Is he ready?

“Yes, I am. I can honestly say that,” Hellebuyck said. “I like where my game is at. My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle.”

That battle commences on Wednesday night.

MORE: Jets vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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

Trade: Sabres get Wayne Simmonds from Devils

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Well, here is the most unexpected trade on deadline day (so far).

The Buffalo Sabres, who entered the day six points out of a playoff spot and with multiple teams ahead of them, sent a conditional fifth-round draft pick to the New Jersey Devils for veteran forward Wayne Simmonds.

That pick will become a fourth-round pick if the Sabres make the playoffs this season and Simmonds plays at least 10 games.

Simmonds is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

There is nothing wrong with the cost here for Simmonds. It’s probably about what his value should be in this market and given what he currently provides. Plus, a mid-round pick has very little chance of even turning into an NHL player, let alone an impactful one. But it’s still surprising to see a team in Buffalo’s position attempt to add something at the deadline.

Is it a last-minute effort for general manager Jason Botterill to try and do something to save his job? Or is it a team looking at what happened with St. Louis and Columbus a year ago and thinking, “hey, we can do that too!” If it’s the former, well, that’s understandable. The pressure is on to win in Buffalo and patience is running thin with everyone. If it’s the latter, that would simply be a gross misunderstanding of what happened with those teams (especially St. Louis).

The 31-year-old Simmonds has eight goals and 16 assists for the Devils this season. At his peak he was one of the best power forwards in the league and a true force as a net-front presence on the power play, but his production has rapidly fallen off the past two years.

Buffalo has played much better in February (7-3-1) but has only managed to gain four points in the standings during that stretch. They still have six points to make up and only 20 games to do it. They would not only need to maintain that similar level of play, but also get some help along the way.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.

Rangers sign Chris Kreider to 7-year contract extension

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Some massive news from the New York Rangers on Monday as team president John Davidson announced a seven-year contract extension for winger Chris Kreider, removing one of the biggest names from the trade market just hours before the deadline.

Kreider re-signing with the Rangers was always a possibility, but the longer it went on without a new deal (or talks of any kind) the less likely it seemed to be. But this was clearly something the two sides wanted and they were able to find a common ground on a new deal.

It is reportedly worth around $6.5 million per season.

It is a pricey contract for sure, and with Kreider already being 28 years old there is some real long-term risk down the line. But in the short-term Kreider remains a significant part of a Rangers’ core that has made significant progress over the past couple of months. They may not be able to do enough to get in the playoffs this season, but they are certainly on track to be a serious factor in that race next season.

Kreider is in the middle of a career year for the Rangers and has always been a lock for around 20 goals and 50 points while bringing a ton of speed to the top of the lineup.

The Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues were all thought to be potential suitors if he were to be traded.

More: NHL Trade Deadline Live Blog

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.

Rangers’ Shesterkin, Buchnevich injured in car accident

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Along with announcing a new contract extension for Chris Kreider on Monday, New York Rangers team president John Davidson said teammates Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich were involved in a car accident in Brooklyn on Sunday night.

According to Davidson, Shesterkin was driving when a vehicle did a U-turn in front of them resulting in the collision.

Fortunately both players were wearing seatbelts at the time of the accident.

Buchnevich was “quite shaken up” according to Davidson, but will only be out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis.

Shesterkin has a non-displaced rib fracture and will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Shesterkin has emerged as the Rangers’ starting goalie in recent weeks and has a 9-1-0 record with a .940 save percentage since his re-call. His performance has been one of the biggest factors in the Rangers’ recent hot streak that has seen them climb back to within striking distance of a playoff spot this season.

The Rangers are currently carrying three goaltenders, while Alexander Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist will take over the goaltending duties in Shesterkin’s absence.

More: NHL Trade Deadline Live Blog

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.

Trade: Sharks send Patrick Marleau to Penguins for draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford wanted to add another forward ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline, and he accomplished that by acquiring Patrick Marleau from the San Jose Sharks.

The Penguins will send a conditional third-round pick to San Jose for the veteran forward who will get another crack at winning his first Stanley Cup.

That draft pick will become a second-round pick if the Penguins win the Stanley Cup this season.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

Marleau, 40, signed with the Sharks earlier this season after a two-year stop with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto traded him over the summer to Carolina, where he was promptly bought out to make him an unrestricted free agent. It was at that point that he made his return to San Jose, the city he called home for the first 19 years of his career.

In 58 games this season he has scored 10 goals to go with 10 assists for a Sharks team that has been — by far — the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season.

Where Marleau fits in Pittsburgh will be interesting to see.

While not possessing the top-end speed he did in his prime, Marleau can still skate well enough to fit in the Penguins’ system but his days as a top producer are well behind him. But the Penguins don’t really need him to be a top-line producer. They need depth. Given the current status of their fourth-line, as well as the recent injury to Zach Aston-Reese, they had an immediate need for help in their bottom-six. They are counting on Marleau still being able to provide that. If nothing else he should be an upgrade over their current fourth-line set-up. It is just a matter of how much of an upgrade that is.

The Penguins previously acquired speedy winger Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild a couple of weeks ago.

Marleau and his new team will play the Sharks in San Jose later this week.

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.