Binnington helps Blues narrowly defeat Jets in his postseason debut

11 Comments

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.

David Perron has been Blues’ overlooked star

2 Comments

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.

Pittsburgh Penguins ’15-16 Outlook

16 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the league’s best forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but last season they lacked the offensive depth to sufficiently back them up. GM Jim Rutherford is hoping he addressed that issue this summer, but there is still a big X-factor with this team.

Starting with the positives, newcomer Phil Kessel is one of the league’s top goal scorers and pairing him up with a superb playmaker like Crosby should make for a great combination. Combined with Patric Hornqvist, Malkin, David Perron, and Chris Kunitz and the Penguins have the potential to feature two very effective lines. Summer additions Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino will also provide the Penguins with some all-important depth up the middle.

After that though, their bottom-six gets a little hazy.

Theoretically, Pascal Dupuis would be an ideal presence on their third line and wouldn’t look out of place if the Penguins opt to put him in their top-six, but he’s also played in just 55 games over the last two seasons due to a torn ACL and a blood clot. Even if we presume that his health issues are behind him, one has to wonder if the long layoffs have negatively impacted the 36-year-old forward. The Penguins might be penciling Beau Bennett for a third line role as well, but he’s had injury problems too and hasn’t developed as hoped.

Health issues have unfortunately been a running theme for the Penguins.

They’re counting on Kris Letang to anchor their defense, but the 69 games he played last season represented a personal best since 2010-2011. Even Malkin is a question mark at this point, as he’s only surpassed the 70-game mark once since 2008-2009.

Now to be fair, if the biggest knock is “they might get hurt,” then that’s arguably a sign that there are not a lot of issues to begin with.

After all, the Penguins core — when healthy — is among the most impressive in the league. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can be firmly listed as part of that foundation as well as his performance over the last two campaigns has run contrary to the old narrative that he gets worse under the heightened pressure of the playoffs.

The jury is still out on the Penguins’ depth though and those aforementioned injury problems can’t be casually dismissed. This is a team that has been among the most prone to health problems from 2009-10 onward, according to Man Games Lost.

If that trend ends though, then this should be a very dangerous team.

Pens’ plan for now: Crosby starts as Kessel’s center

25 Comments

A lot can change between today and training camp, let alone the regular season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins plan on starting Phil Kessel out on Sidney Crosby’s line.

(Head coach Mike Johnston made note that the course could easily be altered.)

Under this setup, Evgeni Malkin would likely center a line including Patric Hornqvist. One would assume that Chris Kunitz would fill out the Crosby – Kessel combo, but again, this is pure speculation in August.

The biggest “loser” of this scenario may just be David Perron, at least if he was bumped down to the third line. Roster Resource’s depth chart really shows how much the Penguins’ roster has changed this off-season.

Back in July, PHT took an early look at the debate regarding pairing Kessel with Crosby or Malkin, pointing to some takes that “Geno” might work better with the sniper than No. 87.

You can find a succinct discussion of that argument from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen:

With Kessel and Malkin on the ice together, there would be constant movement and interplay between two threats able to score on virtually any possession in the attacking zone.

Crosby plays more of a north-south game of direct lines and quick puck movement. Crosby’s linemates have to think the game quickly, react quickly, and be ready in a hurry. He wants his wings to be predictable.

Scoring lines are generally fluid in the modern NHL, yet in late August, it’s fun to get an update like this. Which way would you lean if you were in Johnston’s shoes?

Barring bad injury luck, Kessel should be a happy man in either scenario.

For Pens, Tuesday’s moves were all about depth and finances up front

22 Comments

Following a busy day in which he flipped Brandon Sutter to Vancouver for Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening, then signed ex-Capital Eric Fehr, Pens GM Jim Rutherford explained how those moves met two of his biggest objectives.

“The two deals went hand-in-hand so we can add more depth,” Rutherford said. “We have enough good players now that guys are going to have to compete for those spots [in training camp] and compete for them all year.”

He then addressed the money issue.

“When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom-six cap hits in better shape,” Rutherford explained. “That’s what we were able to do with these two deals.”

It’s not surprising that depth and finances were two of Pittsburgh’s biggest offseason priorities. Money allotment has been an issue — Sutter, a pending UFA potentially in line for a raise, was making $3.3 million while playing what amounted to a third-line center role.

Combined, Bonino and Fehr are a $3.9M cap hit.

(Lest we forget that, in the Phil Kessel trade earlier this month, Rutherford dealt away another relatively expensive third-liner in Nick Spaling, who makes $2.2M annually.)

Earlier, veteran depth guys Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Daniel Winnik and Craig Adams were allowed to walk in free agency, giving likes of Beau Bennett ($800K), KHLer Sergei Plotnikov ($925K), Swedish prospect Oskar Sundqvist ($700K) and Czech Leaguer Dominik Simon ($692K) a chance to get into the rotation.

So that’s the financial side.

In terms of depth up front, Pittsburgh seems far better suited to deal with injuries — something that, you may remember, was a recurring issue in ’14-15. Kessel gives the club a bonafide scoring winger to play alongside either Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while Fehr and Bonino, both natural centers, provide nice depth down the middle.

Fehr could even bounce outside if need be.

“Eric is definitely comfortable as a two-positional player,” Rutherford said. “He could possibly jump up into the top six, if that situation presented itself, but he’s coming off of a year where he played center.”

Pascal Dupuis is expected to return after playing just 16 games last year, and the club will get a full season of David Perron, acquired from Edmonton in January. Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why Rutherford is so pleased with Pittsburgh’s new-look forward group — it’s deeper, with a more sensible financial structure.

“If a guy falls off, there’s a guy waiting to jump right in there,” he explained. “I like the fact that we have enough guys that each guy can push each other.

“I like our depth at forward now.”