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

Binnington helps Blues narrowly defeat Jets in his postseason debut

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The Winnipeg Jets tested Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Mark Scheifele ran into him out of the gate and Patrik Laine beat him with a huge goal early in the first period, but Binnington didn’t unravel in his postseason debut. He kept the Blues in the contest until they could battle back in the third period to earn a 2-1 victory over Winnipeg in Game 1.

“Yeah, (Binnington) did a great job … early on, with the Scheifele thing … but that’s part of the playoffs and he handled it well, and he played a hell of a game,” Blues coach Craig Berube said.

Binnington has been the story of the Blues’ campaign thus far. He didn’t start the season in the NHL, but with St. Louis struggling mightily and the Blues’ goaltending not living up to expectations, Chad Johnson was put on waivers in December. With the opening that created, it wasn’t long until Binnington became the spark St. Louis needed, guiding the Blues into the playoffs with a 24-5-1 record, 1.89 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 32 games.

It wasn’t all Binnington though. This was a hard fought battle against two teams that looked even. The third period was certainly St. Louis’ though. The Jets’ 1-0 lead was finally eliminated at 4:05 of the third period when David Perron scored just his fifth goal in 58 career playoff games. Tyler Bozak, who like Perron was signed as a UFA over the summer, scored the winner with just 2:05 left. Pat Maroon, yet another summer addition, deserves a lot of credit for carrying the puck and setting up Bozak on the deciding goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That gave the Jets plenty of time to have one more sustained shot at Binnington, but nothing got by him with the pressure on.

St. Louis was one of the hottest teams in the league coming into the playoffs. The Blues went 28-8-5 in the second half, which isn’t far behind the dominate Tampa Bay Lightning’s 30-9-2 record in their final 41 games. That strong finish made up for St. Louis’ rocky start and resulted in St. Louis tying Winnipeg in terms of regular season points at 99.

Even if Game 1 was in Winnipeg by virtue of the tiebreaker, St. Louis can hardly be classified as the underdog and this win isn’t a true upset. It was a close game between two evenly matched squads in a series that’s far from decided.

Blues-Jets Game 2 from Bell MTS Place will be Friday night at 9:30 p.m. ET on CNBC

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.

Blackhawks outlast Blues in shootout win

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The chances of the St. Louis Blues going from last place in the National Hockey League just after the New Year began to finish first in the Central Division at regular season’s end took a bit of a hit on Wednesday Night Hockey.

The Blues dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Chicago Blackhawks, who were punted from playoff contention a night earlier.

Wednesday’s game on NBCSN was St. Louis’ game-in-hand on the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets. A win would have put them level on 96 points with their two of Central rivals, but they only managed one point to put them on 95 with two games remaining. Essentially, they will need Winnipeg and Nashville to each drop their two remaining games and find wins in their own two remaining to steal the division crown.

Both Nashville and Winnipeg are in action on Thursday.

Jonathan Toews was the start of the show, opening the scoring in the first period off a slick feed from Patrick Kane for his 35th. The goal gave Toews a new career high, surpassing the total of 34 he set 10 years ago.

Toews then scored the only goal of the shootout to give Chicago the win.

Some figured Toews fell off last year after his worst statistical season outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Instead, the 30-year-old has set a new career high in goals and points and has matched a career mark in assists, needing just one more for the career-high hat trick.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

St. Louis was a stubborn bunch in this game. They trailed 3-1 in the third period thanks to Kane’s 42nd but watched as David Perron brought the game to 3-2 and then Tyler Bozak scored with 38.9 seconds showing on the game clock to force overtime.

Cam Ward got the start for the Blackhawks in what could be his final in the NHL. There’s a thought out there that the 35-year-old could hang ’em up after his 699th NHL appearance.

The start was Ward’s first in a month, with an injury keeping him out of action for a good chunk of that. Still, the veteran backstop turned aside 37 shots in win No. 333 in his 14-year NHL career.

The Blues went with Jake Allen, who made 35 saves. St. Louis plays the second half of a back to back against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, and it’s expected that rookie wonder Jordan Binnington will get the call there.

St. Louis still needs to make sure they get another point, regardless of where they finish, just in case the Dallas Stars win out. Dallas (91 points) could move into third place in the division if everything went right for them and everything went wrong for the Blues.

A final note: Kane set a new career-high in points with 107, eclipsing the 106 that won him the Art Ross in 2015-16.


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

David Perron has been Blues’ overlooked star

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The St. Louis Blues were one of the NHL’s most active teams over the summer, going all out in an effort to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago. Along with acquiring Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres and signing Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon in free agency, they also brought back veteran winger David Perron (after losing him in the expansion draft the previous year) on a four-year, $16 million contract for what is now his third different stint with the team.

So far, that addition has proven to be worth every penny the Blues have paid.

Perron scored two more goals and added an assist in the Blues’ 7-2 thumping of the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, bringing his season totals to 20 goals and 40 total points in 48 games. He is currently third on the team in goals scored and fourth in total points despite the fact he has missed more than 20 games and was sidelined for two consecutive months, having just returned to the lineup this past weekend.

In his first three games back in the lineup he already has three goals and two assists, including Tuesday’s big performance. If you go back to before his injury, he has now recorded at least one point in 16 consecutive games for the Blues and, when healthy, has been one of their most consistent and productive players this season.

It all continues what has been a fascinating career trajectory for Perron.

After showing some signs of being a top-line player early in his career with the Blues but never really fully reaching that potential, things kind of stalled out for him as he bounced around the league, going from Edmonton, to Pittsburgh, Anaheim, and then back to St. Louis between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

But when he arrived in Vegas as part of the Golden Knights’ expansion draft haul his career seemed to be injected with new life.

He was instantly one of their top players and one of the key ingredients in their improbable debut season that resulted in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. It was the best season of his career and resulted in a pretty decent pay day in free agency this past season. He has followed it up in St. Louis with what has been, to this point, the second best season of his career as he is currently on what would amount to a 34-goal, 68-point pace over 82 games. (Because of the time missed due to injury, he is probably likely to finish with around 24 goals and 50 points in 57 games … which is still excellent).

There is almost certainly an element of randomness and luck to some of his production this season, especially since he is currently carrying around a 21 percent shooting percentage this season, well above his normal career average. That number will almost certainly drop in future seasons, but you still can not take away what he has already done this season.

During 5-on-5 play he has been one of the Blues’ best players, averaging more points per 60 minutes (2.34) than every other player on the team, and by a pretty significant margin (O’Reilly is second at 2.15, while Oskar Sundqvist is the only player over 2.00). He is also one of the team’s leaders in primary assists, indicating that he is helping to drive the offense when he is on the ice.

The Blues badly needed more offensive playmakers to put around Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Brayden Schenn, and the additions of O’Reilly and Perron have really helped.

Now that Perron is back in the lineup, they are going to need him to continue the current pace he has been on so far this season as they get ready for the start of the playoffs.

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.

Stone’s arrival has given Golden Knights new top scoring line

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It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.

For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.

Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.

Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.

In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.

During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.

You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.

From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.

That is where Stone comes in.

Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.

When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.

He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.

Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.

They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.

The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.

With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.

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.