All eyes on Binnington when Blues face off against Jets

Jordan Binnington is about to get a crash course in what Connor Hellebuyck faced last season.

The St. Louis Blues’ rookie goaltender will make his playoff debut against Hellebuyck and the high-powered Jets in Game 1 of their first-round series Wednesday night in Winnipeg. If Binnington can match what Hellebuyck did last year in his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blues could continue their surprising run after going from last in the NHL in January all the way to the postseason.

Binnington hasn’t taken time to reflect on his 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and league-leading 1.89 goals-against average since making his first start in January.

”It’s really been nonstop, and I’ve been enjoying it and working hard,” Binnington said. ”You’ve got to be relentless at this level, so you don’t really have time to think.”

The Jets are and should be thinking a lot about Binnington, who’s as much of an unknown quantity as there is in these playoffs. The 25-year-old languished in the minors before St. Louis turned to him midseason almost by default with starter Jake Allen not at his best and backup Chad Johnson struggling so much he was put on waivers.

The Blues’ absurd turnaround from last place on Jan. 3 to third in the Central Division had a lot to do with Craig Berube replacing Mike Yeo as coach, but it also coincided with Binnington stepping into the crease.

”Binner came up and won some games and played really well and we got on a streak and never really looked back,” veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said.

Hellebuyck hasn’t been quite as sharp this season after he backstopped the Jets to the Western Conference final a year ago with a .927 save percentage and 2.25 GAA in the first two rounds. Still, going that run should help him the second time around.

”One thing that you can’t substitute is experience,” Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”Once you go through something and you experience it, you have a mental template of how you need to act and what you liked about it, what you didn’t like about it. So now he’s got that experience.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It’s not just Hellebuyck, either. Save for a handful of guys who were around for a first-round sweep at the hands of Anaheim in 2015, last year was the first chance for a lot of Jets players to get on the ice in the playoffs, including young guns Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.

”It’s still hockey,” Laine said. ”It doesn’t matter if you have 10 Stanley Cups, you’ve still got to win. You’ve still got to play the game. So hopefully we know what to do in certain situations, but hopefully the experiences from last year are going to help us a little bit this year.”

INJURY REPORT

Berube expects banged-up center Tyler Bozak and defenseman Colton Parayko to be able to go.

Winnipeg will be without forward Brandon Tanev for Game 1, coach Paul Maurice said, but should have top-four defenseman Josh Morrissey back after missing six weeks with an upper-body injury. The Jets played long stretches without Morrissey and top defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and still managed to finish second in the division.

”Obviously every team has nicks and bruises and injuries,” Cheveldayoff said. ”You certainly would love to have your full complement of players. But I think the thing you look at the most is how have you sustained it? Obviously going into the playoffs here with the group that we have, they’ve scratched and clawed their way.”

O’REILLY FACTOR

When the Blues had a bad first couple of months of the season, center Ryan O'Reilly was still on his game and producing. Acquired from Buffalo in a trade last summer, O’Reilly has been exactly what St. Louis has needed and led the team with 77 points.

”He’s good on both ends of the ice, he’s very easy to play with, makes it easier on his linemates,” forward Brayden Schenn said. ”He works hard at both ends of the ice, has good vision, good in the battles, good faceoff guy. There’s obviously a ton of elements to his game that make him good and a special player.”

O’Reilly won 56.9% of his faceoffs, good for eighth in the league, and the matchup against Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry – who ranked seventh – will be one to watch.

COACHING CHANGE

Like Berube, Maurice took over the Jets during the season, but that was back in 2013-14. Berube is an interim coach for the second time after replacing Peter Laviolette with Philadelphia three games into the 2013-14 season. He said he has approached St. Louis differently.

”It’s two totally different teams, to be honest with you,” Berube said.” When you take a team over, first and foremost you’ve got to manage your players and manage a locker room and things like that and there’s different scenarios on both teams. We play a different brand of hockey here than I did in Philly.”

That’s a very north-south brand of hockey that has fit the Blues well. And the biggest difference between Berube and Yeo is practice, where the new coach runs a tight ship, is quick to blow the whistle to stop drills and believes those habits translate to games.

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Pastrnak the Unpredictable: Bruins winger is dominating NHL

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David Pastrnak on the ice these days is like a dazzling young magician who isn’t quite sure how his sleight of hand is going to work out.

When he has the puck, his Boston Bruins teammates don’t know what to expect. Opponents don’t know. He doesn’t even know.

”If you don’t know what you’ll do, then they’re not going to know what to do,” Pastrnak said.

Unpredictability is at the core of Pastrnak’s brilliance. His blend of creativity and skill is the reason the player nicknamed ”Pasta” leads the NHL with 26 goals.

The 23-year-old winger from the Czech Republic has been better than a point-a-game player before and helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has put him in the discussion as one of the best goal-scorers in the world.

”He’s played great hockey this year,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who has led the league in goals eight times and may now be passing the torch to Pastrnak. ”He’s a great shooter, a great skater and he’s on the next level this year.”

Pastrnak is on pace to shatter his career high in goals and points. He credits that to chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and more of a ”shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that has perhaps taken opposing defenses and goaltenders by surprise.

”I’ve been playing with these two guys so long that I know where they’re at and I know where to find them and they know where to go,” Pastrnak said. ”I’ve been shooting the puck a little more. I think when there is a shot, I take it. It used to be times when I would still look for pass. Now, I think I discover better that if I’m in a good spot, then I should shoot.”

Pastrnak is averaging almost four shots a game, but aside from the faceoff circle on the power play where he can one-time the puck, few know when he’s going to put the puck on net. He has even tried a drop pass on a breakaway this season.

Good luck to anyone trying to anticipate his next move.

”Even his own teammates don’t know what to expect from him,” said Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, who has played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team. ”I think that’s the hardest part is the reading of him, but for a defenseman, you’re staying on the defensive side, there’s only so much you can do. I guess you try to not get dangled by him.”

Teammates only have to worry about that in practice. In games, they benefit from Pastrnak’s magic acts.

Much like skating with a distributing center like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, it’s not easy playing with someone who is abruptly creative, but his linemates are finally getting the trick.

”I just try to stay predictable for him,” Marchand said. ”I tend to go to the same spots or put the puck in the same areas. So when he’s being unpredictable he at least knows what I’m going to do and then I kind of just let him do his thing and try to find space where he isn’t.”

Marchand added: ”He could do 100 different things in a game, so it’s tough to defend that.”

How about coaching it? Bruce Cassidy isn’t worried about Boston’s top goal-scorer going off script – he expects it – and figures Bergeron and Marchand would put Pastrnak back in line, if needed.

The Bruins coach understands his top line’s dynamic allows for Pastrnak and Marchand to be more offensively driven because Bergeron does so much all over the ice.

”With the puck, he’s earned the right to play his game,” Cassidy said of Pastrnak. ”The things we work with David on is playing through frustration, if teams are starting to play you harder. We’ve talked to him about how he can still help the team. We talk about his play away from the puck because he’s on the ice 18, 20 minutes a night, so that’s important.”

Opponents can sense confidence oozing from Pastrnak and see that as the reason for his breakout season. Pastrnak himself is soft-spoken and just trying to enjoy himself and score some goals.

”That’s what it’s about, to have fun, and I think that’s when you play your best hockey,” he said. ”I’m just trying to make plays that I see.”

More often than not, they’re plays no one else can see.

Oilers headed toward another collapse without major change

Edmonton Oilers
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Take a quick glance at the NHL standings and it is easy to conclude that the Edmonton Oilers have put themselves in a pretty good position.

They are just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division, and after a disastrous meltdown in 2018-19 it would seem first-year coach Dave Tippett and new general manager Ken Holland have made some significant strides this year.  But the current standings are only a history of what has already happened. They tell us nothing about what will happen — or is likely to happen — in the future.

When you dig a little deeper than just the win-loss record it becomes really hard to be optimistic about the direction this season could take. And before you argue that the record is all that matters and the team is playing better, keep in mind they are only one point better after 34 games than they were a year ago (40 points this year vs. 39 points a year ago).

All of the same flaws that have plagued the Oilers still exist today, and without some sort of a major change they could be headed toward the same fate as last year’s team.

It’s Still McDavid and Draisaitl or bust offensively

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the best offensive players in the league, and when they are on the ice together they are the best duo the league has seen in decades. But the second the Oilers take them off the ice the team’s lack of depth is exposed and they are unable to compete. It’s been a problem for two years and is somehow even worse this season.

Just consider…

  • When one of McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have a plus-5 goal differential. Not great, but at least on the positive side. At this time a year ago it was plus-11.
  • When both of them are on the ice their goal differential is a plus-6. At this time a year ago it was plus-10.
  • When neither is on the ice their goal differential is minus-17. At this time a year ago it was only minus-7.
  • When neither player is on the ice the Oilers are averaging just 1.46 goals per 60 minutes. That is a drop from the same point a year ago when they were averaging 1.65 goals. Last year’s number was awful. This year’s is worse.

They attempted to address the scoring depth issue by adding James Neal from Calgary. While he has been better than Milan Lucic offensively, he has cooled off considerably after a white-hot start that seemed to be the beginning of a bounce-back year.

He has just six goals in his past 26 games, while almost all of his production this year has been power play dependent (when he is with McDavid and/or Draisaitl). During 5-on-5 play his overall play has become a hot mess. Once you get beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins there is not another forward on the roster that is capable of driving a line on their own.

They still can not stop anybody

When it comes to goals against the Oilers have shown marginal improvement this season. Probably not enough to matter (still 18th in goals against per game), and it’s not the type of improvement they should be relying on to continue because it is entirely dependent on goaltending.

Almost all of that improvement is the result of Mikko Koskinen playing better than expected over the first month of the season in net and masking the team’s many defensive flaws.

When it comes to shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and their ability to control the puck the Oilers remain one of the league’s worst teams. They are still lacking impact players on the blue line, and if their goaltending is not flawless (and it often isn’t) they do not have much of a chance to win.

Mike Smith is in the middle of his second straight sub-par season, while Koskinen has already started to show some signs of regression over his past few starts. If the goaltending doesn’t hold up things could quickly derail.

It’s all starting to catch up them already

The lack of forward depth. The lack of a true No. 1 (or even No. 2) NHL defenseman. The mediocre goaltending.

All of it.

Since starting the season by winning seven of their first eight games, the Oilers have gone 11-11-4 in the 26 games that have followed, including a 2-5-1 mark in their most recent seven-game stretch. While they remain in second place in the Pacific, they are still only four points ahead of the first non-playoff team (a Vancouver team that has two games in hand). On top of that, their upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier as the next seven games are against Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. If they can not successfully navigate through that stretch it is going to leave them in a tough spot where they might be in danger of wasting another fast start to the season.

What that change might be is hard to determine. It’s still a matter of talent and not having enough of it. There is only so much a coach can do with no forward depth and no top defenders. And there is only so much a GM can do to make changes when there are so few assets to trade.

In the end, it all goes back to the mess the previous front office left behind and is a reminder as to how much work Ken Holland still has to do in fixing it.

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.

OHL goalie undergoes surgery after suffering nasty injury

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On Thursday night, the OHL game between the Niagara IceDogs and London Knights was cancelled after IceDogs goalie Tucker Tynan suffered a nasty injury to his leg.

The incident occurred in the opening minute of the second period when Tynan and a Knights player collided resulting in the 17-year-old suffering a nasty gash on his leg. Trainers and paramedics were on the ice for a while before they were able to take Tynan off the ice on a stretcher.

The young netminder was eventually taken to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Thankfully, the IceDogs were able to announce that Tynan’s surgery was a success and that he was in stable condition.

“You never expect an injury like that to occur so your first reaction is just to hope and pray for the player that has been hurt,” said Knights Associate General Manager Rob Simpson, per Global News.

“Right now we are all praying for Tucker and hoping he can have a speedy recovery.”

Similar injuries have occurred in hockey before. Former Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk suffered a horrific gash to his throat in March of 1989. Also, Donald Audette’s wrist was cut by a skate in December of 2001, and Richard Zednik took a skate to the throat from a teammate while with the Florida Panthers. These injuries are all just so frightening and unfortunate.

There’s still no word on how long Tynan will need to stay in hospital or how long his recovery will be, but it’s just encouraging to hear that he’s doing better.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 30 free agents; Pacioretty’s career year

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former NHLer Mike Brown explains how he was able to make it to the highest level. (Puck Junk)

• The Hockey News breaks down the top 30 free agents to be. (The Hockey News)

Justin Holl and Travis Dermott have really helped the Maple Leafs blue line. (TSN)

• It’s been a tough year for Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. (Hockey Wilderness)

• It might be time for the Preds to turn to Juuse Saros a little more often. (Predlines)

• What are the fancy stats saying about the Los Angeles Kings? (Jewels from the Crown)

Max Pacioretty is on pace to have a career year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Coyotes have loaned Barrett Hayton to Team Canada for the World Juniors. (Five for Howling)

• The Blues are about to have a lot of tough decisions to make on their roster. (Bleedin’ Blue)

• It’s time for the Lightning to give Cal Foote a chance to make their roster. (Raw Charge)

• Is it time for the Devils to start worrying about Jesper Bratt? (All About the Jersey)

• Cayden Primeau is showing that he’s already NHL ready. (Habs Eyes on Prize)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.