Jets vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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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]

SCHEDULE
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

FORWARDS

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.

DEFENSE

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.

GOALTENDING

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.

PREDICTION

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.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


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

Wednesday Night Hockey: Blues defensemen find ways to contribute offensively

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blues have found a way to go from being in the basement of the NHL standings to competing for the Central Division title all in the same season. A lot of the credit seems to go to goalie Jordan Binnington, interim head coach Craig Berube, or forward Ryan O'Reilly. All three of those individuals deserve a ton of praise for getting the Blues turned around, but we often ignore the contributions this team gets from their defense.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Blues are tied for lead the league (with Carolina) for goals by defesemen. Incredibly enough, St. Louis has three defenders with double-digit goal totals so far. Alex Pietrangelo (13), Vince Dunn (12), and Colton Parayko (10) lead the way in that category. Carl Gunnarsson, Jay Bouwmeester Robert Bortuzzo, Joel Edmundson, and Chris Butler have also combined to find the back of the net 11 times.

“Obviously, you’re not creating those [goals] by yourself,” Dunn said after a game against the Penguins last month, per NHL.com. “The forwards did a great job pressuring them and getting the puck back when we got it in. They found us up high. The [defensemen] got their pucks through.”

It’s no secret that all of the best teams in the Central have high-end defensemen. The Predators are often considered to have the best blue line in the league, while the Jets have Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and others. We never seem to give the Blues enough credit in that regard. Maybe a division title will change that.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Blackhawks, who will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, will look to play spoiler against their division rivals tonight. There’s still a lot on the line for St. Louis, who are within striking distance of the Jets and Predators in the standings. A win of any kind would move the Blues to second place in the division and it would put all three teams at 96 points (the Jets would remain in first place because they have the highest amount of ROW).

“Obviously, it’s been a great run with all the stuff we have (went through) during this year,” winger Vladimir Tarasenko said. “It’s really good and I’m really proud of everyone on this team, how we went from last place in the League. There’s still a lot of stuff to play for. There’s no time to rest and hang on to this success. We need to improve this and keep going.”

Starting tonight, the Blues will finish the season with three games in four nights, but they’ll face three non-playoff teams in Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver.

“It’s a special group, it really is…But in no means are they satisfied,” Berube said. “That’s the feeling I get from them and that’s good. They want a lot more.”

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.

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.

Stars’ Nichushkin having historically uneventful (and dull) season

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After spending two years in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin returned to the Dallas Stars this season on a two-year contract that will pay him nearly $3 million per season. A first-round pick by the team back in 2013, Nichushkin had shown flashes of the potential that made him a top-10 pick before leaving for Russia, but had never really taken a big step forward in his development.

Still, the Stars obviously had some decently high hopes to be willing to give him that much money in his return.

His first year back with the team has been, in a word, uneventful.

So uneventful, in fact, that it is reaching historic levels for its uneventfulness.

Earlier this week Stars beat writer Sean Shapiro pointed out the fun fact that Nichushkin had already set an NHL record (for a non-goalie) by going 48 games to start a season without scoring a goal or taking a penalty. He has since played in two additional games, including Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, meaning he has now gone 50 consecutive games to open the season without scoring a goal or taking a penalty. He also only has seven assists and is barely averaging more than a shot on goal per game.

Just for laughs, if you go back to his last appearance in the NHL during the 2015-16 he has now gone 76 consecutive games, including playoffs, without a goal, has taken just three minor penalties during that stretch, and has only recorded 11 total assists.

There is just nothing happening here with this player. No offense, no playmaking, nothing that is really putting the team at a disadvantage (other than not scoring) due to sloppy or careless play. He is literally just there.

Just a few things to consider here…

  • As of this writing Nichushkin has logged 607 minutes of ice-time this season without a goal or a penalty. Since the NHL started officially logging time-on ice numbers, the most minutes a player has played in a full season without registering either, was 464 minutes by Kevin Porter in 2015-16 in 41 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The only other player that has logged more than 364 minutes was Chris Tanev with in only 29 games with the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks.
  • Prior to the 2018-19 season there only six players in NHL history that played in at least 50 games, scored zero goals, and recorded fewer than 10 penalty minutes, and only two that had fewer than five (Carl Gunnarsson zero goals and four penalty minutes with the Blues in 2016-17; Rob Scuderi had zero goals and only two penalty minutes in 53 games with the Penguins in 2013-14).
  • Only two players have played in at least 50 games, recorded zero penalty minutes, and scored just one goal. Rick Kessell did it for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1972-73, while Lew Morrison did it for the Atlanta Flames during the 1973-74 season.

The Stars have 11 games remaining, and with Nichushkin not always a lock to be in the lineup he is getting extremely close to making some bizarre history.

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.

 

WATCH LIVE: Blues visit Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After defeating the Penguins 5-2 in LA on Saturday, Jan. 12, the Kings hit the road for a three-game trip to Minnesota, Dallas and Colorado. The Kings lost to the Wild 3-2 after a shootout but then beat the Stars 2-1. They entered Saturday with a chance to make it a four-game point streak, but lost 7-1 to Colorado, allowing six goals in the second period.

Saturday’s 7-1 loss at the Avs was the team’s worst this season, as they lost the game by six goals (worst differential this season) and allowed seven goals, tied for the most allowed this season.

St. Louis last played on Saturday, beating the Senators 3-2 to earn their fourth victory in their last six games (4-1-1 record). They will face the Kings on Monday before playing the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday. Then, like the Kings, will have the All-Star Break and their bye week before playing next on Saturday, Feb. 2 at Columbus. The Blues next home game is Saturday, Feb. 9 vs. Nashville.

The NHL’s hottest player – David Perron – missed Saturday’s win over Ottawa with an upper-body injury. Head coach Craig Berube called Perron day-to-day, but said he would likely not make the trip to California.

Entering Saturday, Perron had a point in 13 straight games (6G-10A), the NHL’s longest active point streak. He has 17 goals this year (had 16 in 70 games w/ VGK last season) and has 19 points (9G-10A) in the last 18 games after recording 16 points (8G-8A) in his first 27 games of the season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: St. Louis Blues at Los Angeles Kings
Where: Staples Center
When: Monday, Jan. 21, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Pat MaroonRyan O'ReillyVladimir Tarasenko
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennAlexander Steen
Samuel Blais – Oskar SundqvistJordan Kyrou
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevJordan Nolan

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

KINGS
Ilya KovalchukAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloJeff CarterBrendan Leipsic
Carl HagelinAdrian KempeTyler Toffoli
Kyle CliffordNate ThompsonAustin Wagner

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty
Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez
Dion PhaneufPaul LaDue

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

Wednesday Night Hockey: Oilers go head-to-head with banged up Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Oilers are coming off a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Monday night, but they played that game without superstar Connor McDavid (illness). It was the first time that McDavid missed time since he broke his collarbone during his rookie season. The good news for Edmonton, is that he was able to hit the ice for practice yesterday, so it appears as though he’ll be able to go against the Blues.

“We were either above the bar with a lot of guys or below the bar, nothing in between…really, you have to be able to win games if you’re missing one (premier) guy. It’s not the end of the world,” head coach Ken Hitchcock said after the loss to Dallas.

As you’d imagine, McDavid has been a huge part of the Oilers this season. Before missing Monday’s game, he had accumulated 14 goals and 35 points in just 26 games. Unfortunately for Edmonton, the lack of support for McDavid has translated into the team being outside of the playoff picture right now (they’re five points behind Minnesota for the last Wild Card spot).

On a positive note, they’ve been getting better results since Hitchcock took over behind the bench. With Hitchcock, the Oilers have gone 4-2-1. Sure, it’s a small sample, but they’ll take what they can get at this point.

Like the Oilers, the Blues also made a coaching change earlier this season, as they replaced Mike Yeo with Craig Berube. Not much has changed for St. Louis since Berube took over. With him, they’re 2-4-0, including an ugly 6-1 loss in Arizona on Saturday night.

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The fact that the injury bug has taken such a huge bite out of the Blues definitely won’t make things easier for them. St. Louis will be without Alex Pietrangelo (hand) and Robby Fabbri (shoulder) for the next little while. Both players will be re-evaluated around Christmas time. Alex Steen (concussion), Jaden Schwartz (upper body) and Carl Gunnarsson (upper body) are all day-to-day.

“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to realize that it’s time to step up for everybody,” defenseman Colton Parayko said. “It’s something that someone else has got to jump into different roles, maybe take on a different role and just bring something different each and every night and be prepared. Obviously at this point, we know where we’re at and we want to continue to get better and we want to climb the standings and that’s going to take a lot of commitment from everybody. Everyone’s got to play together and it’s not just going to happen in one game. It’s going to be a step up for everybody.”

The Blues need to go on a run if they want to salvage their season. They’re currently 11 points out of a playoff spot.

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.