Connor Hellebuyck

Schwartz stuns Jets, completing Blues’ comeback in dying seconds

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These two teams finished with nearly identical records in the regular season, so it seems appropriate that almost every game in this series has been decided by a razor thin margin. This one was no different, though it had an extra element to it as the Blues surged to a 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues found themselves chasing almost immediately. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the game, exciting the hometown crowd, which started a “you look nervous” chant at Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Only the netminder wasn’t rattled.

Binnington held firm and while he did surrender a second goal, this time to Kevin Hayes, later in the period, he kept the Blues in this game early. A lot of credit also has to go to the Blues for their killing of a double minor to Robert Thomas midway through the first, preventing this game from getting away from them.

All the same, the Jets maintained their 2-0 lead for most of the contest. It wasn’t until 1:29 of the third period that the Blues finally got on the board thanks to a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly. He fired the puck in front of the net off a rebound, ending what had been until that point a shutout bid for Connor Hellebuyck.

Even after that, the period wasn’t all Blues. Winnipeg actually led in shots in the final frame 9-8, but the Blues continued to find ways to capitalize. Their comeback wasn’t without intrigue either. Brayden Schenn‘s game-tying goal needed to be reviewed because the net was dislodged at the same time the puck went in. Ultimately it was ruled as a good goal because Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien pushed St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist into the net, which is what dislodged it.

The comeback was completed with just 15 seconds to spare on a goal by Jaden Schwartz.

With that, the home team has lost every game in this series and four of the five contests have been decided by just one goal. Even with how close this series has been, this contest had a different tone to it thanks to the dramatic comeback. It will be a tough pill for the Jets to swallow, but they have to bounce right back to avoid elimination in Game 6.

Blues-Jets Game 6 from Enterprise Center will be Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Connor provides OT magic as Jets even series vs. Blues

Associated Press
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All sorts of questions surrounded the Winnipeg Jets when they dropped two close games — both in the third period — to begin their Western Conference First Round series with the St. Louis Blues.

Those third-period struggles had followed them into the playoffs and doubts about their ability to wash away those sins only intensified.

But an emphatic 6-3 win in Game 3 quelled some of those fears on Sunday, and when Kyle Connor jammed home a loose puck at 6:02 of overtime on Tuesday to give Winnipeg a 2-1 lead, and more importantly, a clean slate in the best-of-7 series that is now all tied up 2-2, several more layers of question marks released their hold on the team.

Indeed, when the series shifts back to Bell MTS Place on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET; USA), it will be the resolve of the Blues that will be the focal point.

The best-of-7 is now a best-of-3, and Winnipeg gets two games at home, although the home team has yet to emerge with a victory so far in the series.

Regulation found two teams that weathered the storms each other brought. Winnipeg held the fort in the first and St. Louis stood tall in the second.

In the third, St. Louis struck first, with Vladimir Tarasenko scoring early on the power play. The Jets would respond, with a centering pass from Kyle Connor finding the stick of Mark Scheifele, who produced one of the deftest deflections you’ll see to finally crack Jordan Binnington.

Both Binnington and his counterpart Connor Hellebuyck were remarkable in the game. Binnington, the rookie sensation, ended with 37 saves while Hellebuyck stopped 31.

Who might take Game 5? These games (outside of Game 3) have been incredibly close. Winnipeg has finally started to hit its stride, and their physical game appears to be wearing on St. Louis. Paul Maurice made some adjustments ahead of Game 3, including reuniting the line with Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

It was a logical move to make given the Jets needed more offensive zone time, and it’s paid off in spades. The line has dominated in the past two games.

And then there’s Patrik Laine, who didn’t score for a fourth straight game but punished the Blues on the walls. Laine, 20, has made massive strides in four games now in becoming a power forward. He’s all over the place and is throwing his large frame around. A Laine that can snipe like he does and be dominant physically won’t be easy for anyone to handle moving forward.

Quick note: the Jets won their first playoff overtime game in franchise history. They were 0-2 heading into Tuesday’s game.


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

Jets claw back in series vs. Blues with big Game 3 win

When the Winnipeg Jets boarded their charter Air Canada charter flight to St. Louis on Saturday, they did so with some extra luggage.

A 0-2 deficit after losing two straight at Bell MTS Place weighed heavily on those on board. Third-period demons tagged along as extra passengers, filling the overhead compartments while dancing up and down the aisles next to Winnipeg’s traveling contingent. Despite two closely contested games, the Jets only had silver linings to show for their efforts.

The math for teams that drop the first two games of a best-of-7 series is such that 86 percent of them who have suffered those initial defeats end up seeing tee boxes rather than their names in the second round of the playoff bracket.

Teams that fall to 0-3? Well, only four have ever come back from that. It’s damn-near impossible.

Mission impossible won’t need an invoking after a 6-3 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round series against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. Winnipeg will still have to defy the odds, however.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Third periods have been the bane of Winnipeg’s existence for the past month and a half. They ended the season with nine losses when leading after two periods and began the playoffs with their 10th loss in 83 games this year. They entered the third period of Game 2 tied but the game ended with a Blues goal and another third-period disaster.

And so came Game 3 with Winnipeg in a familiar spot: ahead on the scoreboard 3-1 after 40 minutes and with all sorts of doubt among the team’s fanbase.

An early power-play goal from Vladimir Tarasenko to begin the final frame seemed to indicate the game was charting a familiar course. And they nearly coughed up the lead entirely when Connor Hellebuyck — not the league’s best puck-handling goaltender — tried to gift the Blues the tying goal. But off the ensuing odd-man rush the other way, a puck caromed off the skate of Brandon Tanev and in, giving the Jets a much-needed answer.

Getting more shots on Jordan Binnington was going to be key if the Jets wanted to taste some success. Binnington, a rookie sensation, was sensational in the first period as he stymied the Jets, who were determined to figure out the young netminder. David Perron had eeked out a goal on the power play late in the frame and all of Winnipeg’s best efforts had gone for naught.

The Jets produced several calculated chances in the first, and Mark Scheifele missed on a clear-cut breakaway to start the second. It wasn’t until a floater from the point by Kevin Hayes, acquired by the Jets at the trade deadline, solved Binnington for the first time on the night later in the middle frame that seemed to ignite the turbines.

The series had been so tight that casual shots on either net had become few and far between, something Maurice said the Jets needed more of.

“Not for the point of getting more rubber at him to loosen him up, but more for what happens after we don’t shoot those,” Maurice said in Winnipeg on Saturday. “What you’re looking for is some chaos off that.”

Patrik Laine, who ended the season with one goal in his final 19 games, had rekindled his hot stick with a goal in each of the first two games. His patience and soft mitts made it three in three games to give the Jets a 2-1 lead. Having him feeling it as he has in the first three games is a significant boon for the Jets, who really needed him to turn it up.

Same with Kyle Connor, who had been invisible in the first two games but found the back of the net twice after moving up to the top line on Sunday.

There will be a Game 5 in Winnipeg next week. What remains to be seen is if the Jets will bring home a series with a clean slate and a best-of-3 scenario, or one where they’re on the ropes.

For that, you’ll have to tune in on Tuesday night (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC) to find out.


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

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.”

Getty Images

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

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