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.

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.

Six stunning numbers at the NHL All-Star break

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With the NHL on its All-Star break throughout the rest of the weekend it is time to once again do our periodic check in on some stunning numbers around the league.

What is standing out to us lately?

Have a look…

Offense is still up and goaltending is way down

The spike in offense around the NHL is always viewed through the lens of offensive players.

As in, look at how many 40-goal scorers we could have this season, or maybe a bunch of players will actually hit the 100-point mark again!

In the end, it means a lot more pucks are going in the net, and if a lot more pucks are going in the net, and more players are seeing their offensive numbers surge, that also has to mean that goalies are seeing their numbers drop. They are. Big time.

Right now there are only two goalies in the NHL that have appeared in at least 30 games and have a save percentage higher than .920.

On this same date a year ago there were nine, same as there was in 2016-17.

On this date in 2015-16 there were 11.

In 2014-15 there were 10.

The game might be shifting back to offense, at least until the league’s 31 coaches figure out how to shut it down again. They always do.

Southern California Power Outage

While everyone else in the NHL is scoring goals at an increased rate, the two southern California teams are stuck in another era. The Los Angeles Kings (2.26 goals per game) and the Anaheim Ducks (2.29) are the two lowest scoring teams in the league this season, and their marks would be among the 15-worst in the NHL over the past 10 years.

Among the teams they are keeping company with in that group: The 2013-14 and 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres Tank teams. The tanking 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes. Five different New Jersey Devils teams. The 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche team that only won 22 games and only recorded 48 points on the season.

These two teams are not only bad offensively for this season, they would be bad among the bad teams from worse offensive seasons. Not a great sign!

Fifty-Two Percent

The percentage of the Edmonton Oilers goals this season, at the All-Star break, that Connor McDavid has a goal or an assist on.

Fifty.

Two.

Percent.

That is insane. But not quite as insane as the fact that when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers are a positive possession team and outscore their opponents by a 31-22 margin (plus-nine goal differential), and drop down to a 48 percent possession team and get outscored 46-70 when he is not on the ice.

Keep in mind this is a team that also has another top-10 scorer in the league (Leon Draisaitl) on it and another No. 1 overall draft pick that is a pretty darn good player in his own right in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

That is just how bad the rest of the roster is.

The Vegas Golden Knights might be better in year two

Their record is slightly worse (though not by much), but they might actually be playing better than they did in their magical debut season.

Let’s just take a look at some of their underlying 5-on-5 numbers including Corsi Percentage (CF%), Scoring Chance percentage (SC%), High-Danger Scoring Chance percentage (HD SC%), Goals For percentage (GF%), their save percentage, shooting percentage, and PDO (5-on-5 save percentage plus 5-on-5 shooting percentage, a measure of “puck luck”) through the first 52 games of each season.

Their league-wide rank in each category is in parenthesis.

Interesting numbers here.

Their possession and scoring chance numbers are all significantly better and among the top in the league, right where the Stanley Cup contenders usually reside.

The big difference is in the goal differential, and a lot of that drop is probably related to 1) Lesser goaltending, and 2) Some poor shooting puck offensively. The fact they are creating as many shots and chances as they are, and dominating the way they have, is an encouraging sign that goal differential could spike. Vegas had a slow start to the season when some injuries piled up and they were still without Nate Schmidt, but once they got healthy they have really taken off.

And there is something else worth keeping in mind here: Their top line is not as good as it was a year ago. They are carrying the play at a high level while getting less production from their best group.

This team is legit, and it is for real.

Patric Hornqvist has taken only one penalty this season

This is kind of mind-blowing because Patric Hornqvist is one of the most relentless and physical players in the NHL. He is a pest around the front of the net, he is always bumping into goalies and wrestling with defenders around the crease, and he is so fiery and intense that he has been prone to take the occasional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Throughout his career he typically averages around 35-50 penalty minutes per 82 games played. Now, that does not put him in goon territory but it’s still far more than his current pace which would put him on track for 4.6 penalty minutes over 82 games this season.

No one is better than Aleksander Barkov at this

By now we should all know that Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov is one of the NHL’s best all-around players, mixing top-line skill with shutdown defense. One of his most underrated skills is his ability to put his team on the power play through drawn penalties and his ability to keep his team off of the penalty kill by never taking penalties. At the All-Star break he has already drawn a league-best 28 penalties this season, while only taking … one. That is a penalty-differential of plus-27 on the season, a number that is far and away better than any other player in the league. Just for comparisons sake, the second best mark in the league belongs to Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson at plus-18. That is impressive on its own just because of how many games Pettersson has missed, but it is still not on the same level as Barkov.

The worst penalty differential in the league?

Winnipeg Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien and St. Louis Blues defender Joel Edmundson, both at minus-18.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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 host Oilers on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers at St. Louis Blues at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Edmonton Oilers experienced something they never want to endure again (at least for … 20 years?) on Monday: life without Connor McDavid. As you likely expected, it didn’t go well, as they lost 4-1 to the Dallas Stars.

McDavid is expected to play against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, however, so do you really need any other reason to tune in? You have seen the guy play, right?

Luckily, there are some other storylines to follow.

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Ken Hitchcock is still getting his bearings with his new team, the Oilers. He likely feels some sympathy for Craig Berube, who’s an in-season replacement in St. Louis, much like Hitchcock was — and then how Hitchcock left.

Vladimir Tarasenko vs. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl against Ryan O'Reilly, and Chief vs. Hitch. The Blues are in a very tough spot, while the Oilers’ playoff hopes are very much alive (yet by no means guaranteed), so this will be one to watch.

[EXTENDED PREVIEW]

What: Edmonton Oilers at St. Louis Blues
Where: Enterprise Center
When: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers – Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

OILERS

Alex Chiasson / Connor McDavid / Leon Draisaitl
Jujhar Khaira / Ryan Nugent-Hopkins / Jesse Puljujarvi
Milan Lucic / Kyle Brodziak / Zack Kassian
Ryan Spooner / Patrick Russell / Ty Rattie

Oscar Klefbom / Adam Larsson
Darnell Nurse / Kris Russell
Kevin Gravel / Matt Benning

Starting goalie: Cam Talbot

BLUES

Zach Sanford / Ryan O’Reilly / Robert Thomas
David Perron / Brayden Schenn / Jordan Kyrou
Patrick Maroon / Tyler Bozak / Vladimir Tarasenko
Jordan Nolan / Ivan Barbashev / Oskar Sundqvist

Joel Edmundson / Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn / Robert Bortuzzo
Jay Bouwmeester / Chris Butler

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.