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

Malkin nearing return for Penguins, Letang still ‘day-to-day’

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After failing to clinch a playoff spot on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins will get another chance at it on Thursday when they return home.

They might be getting a little additional help for that game as well.

Superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 16 with an upper-body injury he sustained when he was cross-checked by St. Louis Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo, was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and is officially a game-time decision for Thursday’s game.

Malkin said on Wednesday that his plan all along was to try and play in the final two games of the regular season.

“We’ll see tomorrow,” said Malkin when assessing his availability. “If I feel fine, I’ll have a chance to play. I’ll be ready.”

It will be a welcome sight for the Penguins whenever he returns. While they have managed to keep collecting points in the standings (they are 4-2-2 without him) the offense has dried up considerably, scoring just 18 goals in the past eight games. They managed just one on Tuesday night in Detroit. The top line, led by Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, has gone cold, and without Malkin to center the second line a lot of the pressure has fallen on the bottom-six to get some timely goals. And while they have been able to do that in recent games the Penguins still need their two big lines to be rolling if they are going to have a chance. Getting Malkin back will certainly help that.

Malkin has 71 points in 66 games this season for the Penguins.

The Penguins need just one more win to clinch a playoff spot.

After playing Detroit on Thursday, their regular season finale is against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Making things even more complicated for the Penguins in recent weeks is that Malkin is not the only key injury they are dealing with.

Kris Letang, the team’s top defensemen, has also been sidelined and remains out of the lineup after briefly returning for three games in mid-March. He confirmed on Wednesday that the injury he is dealing with is related to the one that sidelined him in February and that he did not feel right when he initially returned. At this point he is still listed as “day-to-day.”

Brian Dumoulin, Letang’s regular partner on the top defense pairing, is also currently sidelined. He, too, is listed as being “day-to-day.”

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.

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.

Penguins will be without Malkin on ‘week-to-week’ basis

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PITTSBURGH — Not only did the Pittsburgh Penguins drop what could prove to be an important point against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday night, but they also found out they will be without one of their top players for an extended period of time.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan announced after their 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that superstar center Evgeni Malkin will be out of the lineup on a “week-to-week” basis with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Malkin did not play in Sunday’s game after he appeared to be injured in Saturday’s loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The injury seemingly occurred when he was cross-checked away from the play by Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo. There was no penalty called on the play. Malkin was down on the ice in obvious pain for several moments but remained in the game. He was replaced on the second line on Sunday night by Teddy Blueger, who skated between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust.

Malkin’s absence on Sunday coincided with the return of Rust, continuing what has been a frustrating run of injury luck for the team as they can not quite seem to get everyone healthy at the same time. The Penguins are already playing without two of their top defenders — including their top defender — as Kris Letang and Olli Maatta remained sidelined.

Malkin just recorded his 1,000th career point on Tuesday night in a come-from-behind win against the Washington Capitals, and in 66 games this season has 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) and is the team’s second-leading scorer, trailing only captain Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, sitting three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes who still have two games in hand. The two teams meet two more times this season, including on Tuesday night in Raleigh. They are still seven points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, the first team currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Penguins have nine games remaining in the regular season and are set to begin a tough four-game road trip that will feature games against Carolina, the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and New York Rangers.

Related: Hart, Flyers steal two points with late surge against Penguins

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.

Here come the St. Louis Blues

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The rollercoaster of a season for the St. Louis Blues saw them sitting in 31st place in the NHL on Jan. 3. There were some games in-hand, and a sign things could be improving, but the results just weren’t coming consistently.

Those early days of 2019 are currently referred to in St. Louis as the pre-Jordan Binnington Era. The 25-year-old rookie netminder had appeared in two games in relief this season but had yet to make his first career start. He would get that chance four days later and kick it off with a shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers.

One month later the Blues have jumped up the standings and reside in the second Western Conference wild card spot, six points behind the Dallas Stars in the Central Division with two games in-hand and tied for the fewest games played in the league. They are tied for the third-most points in the NHL since Jan. 3 with 21 points (10-4-1), which includes Thursday night’s fantastic 1-0 overtime win against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

That win featured 32 saves by Binnington, who has overtaken Jake Allen for the No. 1 job in net and been one of the main factors in the Blues’ ascent. The netminder had only one taste of the NHL before this season, a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season, and has spent majority of his professional career in the AHL.

In 10 starts, Binnington has helped the Blues win eight of them, and since that shutout against Philadelphia on Jan. 7, he’s third in the NHL in even-strength save percentage (.954) and, per Natural Stat Trick, has posted a .885 high-danger save percentage — compared to the .796 HDSV% that Allen has recorded this season.

Then there’s the head coach.

This isn’t the first time Craig Berube has led a turnaround. While he had a longer runway to do it with the Flyers in 2013-14, he took over for Peter Laviolette after three games in that season and led them to a win away from the second round. The Blues are 17-13-2 since he replaced Mike Yeo in November and the win over the Lightning encapsulated what he’s tried to instill in his players since taking over.

“The composure that our team’s found, I think more than anything the frustration doesn’t creep in anymore,” Berube said via the Post-Dispatch. “I shouldn’t say anymore, but not as much. We had the three power plays in a row, we could’ve got real frustrated after that but we didn’t. And that’s important. Just stay with it and stay playing.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround considering just two months ago Berube and Brayden Schenn labeled the team as “fragile” after they were booed off home ice following a 6-1 defeat by the Vancouver Canucks. Vladimir Tarasenko apologized to the fans for the team’s poor play, and emotions boiled over in practice when Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford scuffled. Then you had trade rumors putting Tarasenko, Colton Parayko and captain Alex Pietrangelo on the next flights out of town.

General manager Doug Armstrong said after firing Yeo that his team was just “not good enough” and that their core “have to get us out of this.” The Blues’ turnaround can’t all be credited to Binnington. That core has been dependable with some assistance. Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Schenn, and Ryan O'Reilly have led the way, with Parayko and Oskar Sundqvist chipping in as well. This success has also come with David Perron out since mid-January and Jaden Schwarz goalless since Dec. 18.

This run is coming at a good time for the Blues in a wild West playoff race. The last place Los Angeles Kings are five points out of a wild card spot, so things are tight. But outside of the Chicago Blackhawks, the teams around St. Louis are struggling, especially Central foes the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. The games in-hand are valuable at this point, but are useless if they are unable to take points from them.

Considering the bottom half of the West playoff picture changes nightly, the Blues are in a good place and trending upward at the right time.

“It’s fun to be a part of this group right now, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Binnington. “We’re just going to continue on this path and keep going to make our push.”

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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.