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.

Push for the Playoffs: Blues turnaround has them eyeing Central title

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

This season has been a rollercoaster ride for the St. Louis Blues, but they’ve found a way to put themselves within striking distance of the second spot in the Central Division. Heading into tonight’s action, the Blues find themselves just two points behind the Nashville Predators, who are currently in second.

Not only does St. Louis have a game in hand on Nashville, they also have one more regulation/overtime victory so far this season. Tonight could be the night the Blues overtake the Preds, as both teams are in action.

The Blues have kept themselves within striking distance of the their division rival thanks to a perfect four-game home stand that saw them beat Edmonton, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Vegas.

“This homestand’s been pretty good,” Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said, per NHL.com. “We haven’t been great at home all year. I think to have a four-game stretch like this at home, still trying to push and get ready for the playoffs, that’s pretty big because you know that’s going to be pretty big in a series like that.

“The last two games, you knew there were really good teams coming in. I thought we played pretty well. You’re never going to play a perfect game and they’re going to get chances. They are who they are, but I thought we handled it pretty well.”

Of course, the all three spots in the Central are still pretty much in play. St. Louis is still only four points back of the Winnipeg Jets for top spot.

Another thing the Blues have going for them, is that they won’t face the most difficult schedule over the final few days of the season. After tonight’s game against the Rangers, they’ll play in New Jersey tomorrow before going up against a tough Colorado team and non-playoff squads like Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver.

They’ll need the teams around them to falter a little bit, but a division crown isn’t out of the realm of possibility for this Blues team.

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Blues vs. Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Predators vs. Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Devils vs. Red Wings 7:30 p.m. ET
Coyotes vs. Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET
Ducks vs. Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Wild vs. Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
The St. Louis Blues will clinch a playoff berth tonight if…
• They pick up a point in their game against the Rangers
OR
• If the Arizona Coyotes lose in any fashion against the Avs

The Vegas Golden Knights can clinch a playoff berth if…
• They get at least one point against the Wild
OR
• If the Arizona Coyotes lose in any fashion against the Avs

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Penguins vs. Islanders
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Stars
Predators vs. Blues
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Capitals — Clinched
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Islanders — 100 percent
Penguins — 99.8 percent
Hurricanes — 87.7 percent
Blue Jackets — 82.4 percent
Canadiens — 30.1 percent
Flyers — Out
Panthers — Eliminated
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Predators — Clinched
Blues — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Stars — 99.8 percent
Avalanche — 72 percent
Coyotes — 22.7 percent
Wild — 4.2 percent
Blackhawks — 1 percent
Oilers — 0.3 percent
Canucks — Out
Ducks — Eliminated
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Devils — 11.5 percent
Red Wings — 9.5 percent
Rangers — 8.5 percent
Sabres — 7.5 percent
Ducks — 6.5 percent
Canucks — 6 percent
Oilers– 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Panthers — 3 percent
Wild — 2.5 percent
Coyotes — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent**
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 121 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 114 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 104 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 101 points
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — 97 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 49 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 47 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 45 goals
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Ducks host Blues on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blues remarkable turnaround since mid-January has them positioned to make the playoffs despite finding themselves in last place in the league on the morning of Jan. 3. St. Louis has struggled more recently, however, coming off back-to-back regulation losses to Carolina and Dallas.

Since the NHL’s Expansion Era (1967-68), only six teams have made the playoffs after ranking last in the entire League at any point after Jan. 1 (min. 20 GP). The only teams to accomplish the feat in that era: the 1976-77 North Stars, 1979-80 Oilers, 1982-83 Maple Leafs, 1987-88 Kings, 1987-88 Maple Leafs and 1996-97 Senators.

The Blues have one of the easiest upcoming schedules in the league in terms of lowest cumulative points percentage for remaining opponents and only have two remaining divisional games on the schedule (April 1 against COL and April 3 in Chicago).

It is highly unlikely that Anaheim will make the playoffs, thus ending their streak of six consecutive years in the postseason.

Cam Fowler (57G-206A—263 points in 605 GP) needs one point and three goals to tie Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer (60G-204A—264 points in 371 GP) for the most ever by a Ducks defenseman. Earlier this season Ryan Miller became the all-time leader in wins by a U.S.- born goaltender, passing John Vanbiesbrouck (374).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: St. Louis Blues at Anaheim Ducks
Where: Honda Center
When: Wednesday, March 6, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Brayden SchennRyan O'ReillyVladimir Tarasenko
Patrick MaroonTyler BozakRobert Thomas
Jaden SchwartzOskar SundqvistAlex Steen
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan Barbashev – Samuel Blais

Joel EdmundsonAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnMichael Del Zotto

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

DUCKS
Kevin Roy – Ryan GetzlafCorey Perry
Rickard Rakell – Sam Steel – Jakob Silfverberg
Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Max JonesRyan KeslerCarter Rowney

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Jacob Larsson – Cam Fowler
Jaycob Megna – Korbinian Holzer

Starting goalie: John Gibson

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Brian Hayward (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.