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.

Sign of things to come? Jets’ Laine scores monster goal

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Patrik Laine had one of the weirdest 30-goal seasons in recent memories. There were times when he looked like the best goal scorer in the league, but those stretches of brilliance were muddied by prolonged cold streaks. We ultimately saw two Laine’s this season when it comes to goal production and the big question is: Which will we get in the playoffs?

If the first period of Game 1 is any indication, the answer will please Jets fans. Laine took a monster shot that led to the first goal of their series against St. Louis:

Laine had just one goal in his final 19 games of the regular season. His game has grown in other areas, but it’s still fair to say that scoring goals is a big part of what he can bring to the table.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For what it’s worth, Laine did score in back-to-back games to open the 2018 playoffs, but was limited to three more goals in his final 15 postseason contests. So while this goal is obviously a good first step and a welcome sign given the season he’s had, it’s not hard to find reminders that there’s plenty to prove.

Meanwhile, one of the big X-Factors on the Blues’ side is rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who obviously was beaten by Laine there, but had a strong opening period. He made saves he needed to and shook off the collision with Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele early in the frame. While the Jets went into the first intermission with the lead and plenty of reason for optimism, the were silver linings on the Blues’ end and how Binnington performed early in his postseason debut was one of them.

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.

Jets’ Laine evolves from sublime scorer to all-around player

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Patrik Laine tossed sports drinks to his teammates in the locker room and received plenty of barbs in return.

Laine led the Winnipeg Jets with 44 goals last season, but on this day in practice he was on the losing end of a breakaway competition and became the water boy.

”I don’t want to waste my goals on a breakaway game,” Laine said as he chirped back.

With 30 goals and 50 points in 79 games, Laine hasn’t had a bad year offensively even amid long stretches of low production. He has had goal droughts of five, six, 12 and 15 games. But at 20 years old in his third NHL season, the Finnish winger has rounded out his game beyond being a sublime scorer and evolved into the kind of player who could contribute to another long playoff run for Winnipeg.

”I believe Patty is going to be a power forward,” coach Paul Maurice said. ”He’s going to become a very powerful man down low. For sure, what happens is you get these guys come in with this extreme talent and you kind of expect it to bleed into all parts of the game, they should be able to do everything well. Well nobody does at 18, 19 and 20. It takes time for them to build their game.”

The second pick in the 2016 draft behind Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Laine scored 80 goals in his first two seasons in North America on smaller ice than he was used to, and it looked like it came so easy.

When it suddenly didn’t, Laine learned quickly he had to work to compensate in other aspects of the game.

”There’s always going to be times when you’re not scoring, but still that’s not the full game,” he said. ”There’s still 17 minutes you need to play pretty much without the puck. There’s obviously those small things that we need to do well as a team that everybody in this locker room appreciates. So you’ve just got to do those things when you’re not scoring and you’ve got to do that all the times.”

That is music to a coach’s ears. Maurice understands the comparisons between Laine and a young Alex Ovechkin. He also knows even the most offensively gifted players struggle early in their careers to figure out how to do other things. Maurice can see progress from Laine just by how hard he works on the ice.

”It’s because Patty’s played way harder 5-on-5,” Maurice said. ”No amateur player comes in usually with an offensive bent and has any idea of how hard you have to play to play against the other team’s best. They spend some time and then they go, ‘OK, the top two lines on every team are completely different in some ways than the bottom two lines, the set of D I’ve got to play against.’ It takes them a while to learn the pace they have to play at.”

It also takes time to grow physically and mentally. General manager Kevin Chevelayoff understands the talent Laine brought to the NHL as a teenager and also the idea that improvement doesn’t happen overnight.

”He’s filling out from a hockey standpoint, but he’s also getting stronger,” Cheveldayoff said. ”He’s still not as physically mature as some of the older players. As that rounds out, I just think his game is really going to define itself even more.”

The definition in Laine’s game and the work ethic, teammates say, comes from captain Blake Wheeler and alternate captain Mark Scheifele. Winnipeg’s two All-Stars don’t have the same raw talent or the wicked shot of Laine, but their examples have rubbed off on him.

”Both great leaders, have tremendous work ethic, understand the game very well,” veteran forward Matt Hendricks said. ”Patty really wants to be an all-around great hockey player. He’s always talking to them about where he could be or what he could do differently to help the team game as well as help them produce offensively.”

Part of Laine’s on-the-job lesson has been appreciating the challenge of facing top defenders each game. Being the focal point of a defensive game plan is nothing new, but seeing that affect his numbers at the NHL level spurred Laine to figure out how to contribute when the puck’s not going in the net.

”It’s always tough, but then you start thinking about all of the other things more and what can I do better and how can I get more chances and still play good defense,” Laine said. ”Playing good defense is going to win you championships. I know that. You can win a lot of games by good offense, but in the long run, you’re going to win more with good defense.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Laine has rekindled passing ability, and goalies should be very afraid

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It was 11:24 into the first period of Thursday’s 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins when Patrik Laine was presented with a conundrum.

Bearing down on goal with the puck on his stick, and with linemate Mark Scheifele angling hard to the Boston net off to his right, the Winnipeg Jets forward had a choice to make: try and pick a corner, the preferred method of a 20-year-old superstar who has 109 goals in two-and-a-half years in the NHL or slide a perfect pass to Scheifele, who’d meet it at the back door behind a helpless Tuukka Rask.

For a guy born with the gift of snipe, the decision in front of him (and the one he’d eventually make) seemingly perplexed the young Finn.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to shoot, too,” Laine said while fielding questions after the game.

Laine chose Option B, making that perfect pass to Scheifele, who was, predictably, sitting on the back doorstep waiting to receive.

Never one to shy away from being brutally honest, Laine explained his strategy.

“If I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t think the goalie’s going to know what I’m doing,” he said. “I thought first I was going to shoot it, I was pretty close. But then I saw [Scheifele] back door so might as well pass it, sometimes.”

Might as well.

Laine’s gone from a goal-scoring prodigy to an elite passer (while still also being a goal-scoring prodigy). But we always knew he could.

Laine’s game has flourished since linking up on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Before, Laine was so far down in the gutter that some pondered trading him, or at the very least, shipping him down to the American Hockey League to “teach him a lesson.”

Trading nor demoting Laine was ever going to materialize, but the concern over Winnipeg’s prized possession was reaching hysteria levels as Laine’s goal drought reached 15 games.

Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler had been experimented with in the past but results were average. Laine’s defensive game was never up to snuff, and playing on a line tasked with lining up against the NHL’s best demanded all three parts of the trio playing in both ends of the ice.

This time around, it’s clicked. Two months of floating around and looking bewildered with his lot in life has simply vanished. In its place is a Patrik Laine who backchecks, who can be found behind his own net digging out a puck and leading a rush up the ice. He’s adapted to the way both Scheifele and Wheeler play.

“I think what guys realize about me and Wheels is it’s never one guy’s the passer, one guy’s the shooter,” Scheifele said. “We all do the work, we all do what needs to be done. When you’re the guy to score, you’re the guy to score. When you’re the guy to pass, you’re the guy to pass. That’s the way we’ve always worked.”

Laine is now working within those parameters. Part of that is having no choice in the matter. You play north-south with intense pace like the other two or you play on a different line. The other part is that Laine has adopted the line’s mantra, as Scheifele explained.

“I think they’re good at creating spaces, kind of empty spots on the ice and it’s just easy for me to try to read off them, what they’re doing and where the open ice is going to be,” Laine said. “Now, I’m starting to learn where they want to go, and where do they want me to go. So it’s been kind of a learning process, learning every game and every practice. But it’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Winnipeg’s top line features three right-handed shots, a mixture that head coach Paul Maurice has liked. And why wouldn’t he? The line combined for seven points against the Bruins and his best shooter has unleashed a more well-round version of himself.

“It’s a completely different style of game,” Maurice said. “I’ve got three right-handed shots there, so when [Laine] opens up, he’s got two guys that are very, very fast. So Blake [Wheeler] just drives the pace and Mark [Scheifele] is very good at finding holes off that.

“It’s a different game if it’s a lefty there. There’s just different kinds of plays that get completed. It puts Patrik, because of the off-side speed that he’s playing with, it puts him in position, when he gets it, to have those passing options that he wouldn’t have had before. It also puts him in a more difficult place to shoot the puck. It’s more of a challenge how he gets the puck coming on that side of the ice, but he’s starting to put those numbers up.”

Maurice said himself Thursday that Laine’s game is night and day better the moment he moved to the left wing on Scheifele’s line.

“One, because he’s smart and he wants to make it work,” Maurice said. “But he also has an appreciation now that when you’re playing against – and tonight we ran [Adam] Lowry against [Patrice] Bergeron – but on nights when their best are playing [against Scheifele’s line], you don’t get to make two mistakes on one shift or it’s in the back of the net. The same as it is going the other [way]. We put him there, as much as we thought it would be an offensive grouping that we liked, to teach him that part of the game.”

Laine’s gone from the kid barely passing in the back of the class to the astute learner with his hand up in the front row.

And his game has evolved.

In the past, a stretch of points for Laine would look like betting odds: several goals and one or two assists. At the moment, he’s bucked that trend with four goals and eight assists in his past 11 games.

A Patrik Laine with a shot possessed by few and the vision to match? Tuukka Rask got a taste on Thursday. All he could do was guess with Laine bearing down on him. Like Laine, he didn’t know what was going to happen either.

“All the options are right there, obviously, but when it’s one of the best shooters in the league you don’t want to cheat on that so I just didn’t make the push on time,” Rask said.

Good luck, goalies.

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

Laine’s cold streak isn’t only warning sign for Jets

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Search Patrik Laine‘s name and you’ll see a lot of pessimism lately, and that makes sense.

After all, the Finnish winger is ice-cold, to the point that you can slice and dice his numbers in a wide variety of unflattering ways, at least if you make sure to skate past the whole “18 goals in November” thing.

The takes really hit a boiling point after possibly Laine’s lowest point as an NHL player. While the Winnipeg Jets managed a 4-3 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, Laine only logged 10:55 of ice time, and again — that’s in a game that included a full five-minute overtime of 3-on-3 action. (That “free hockey” accounted for 52 seconds of Laine’s ice time.)

That ice time marks the second-lowest of Laine’s career, but his worst was a game cut short by injuries, so this was the harshest “coach’s decision” the sniper’s faced yet.

The Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman wonders if that tough game was a “wakeup call,” one that might even merit a healthy scratch, and he’s far from the only person cringing at Laine’s numbers.

No doubt about it, the Jets need to make sure that Laine is focused and confident with the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs not much more than two months away.

Is it possible, though, that Laine’s struggles distract from some issues for the Jets? Winnipeg isn’t necessarily in a crisis, but there are some things to consider.

While that trio is dominant, Laine isn’t exactly riding with high-end scorers. During the last month or so, he’s mostly been skating with Bryan Little (a decent but unspectacular center) and Jack Roslovic (an intriguing but unfinished talent). It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if the Jets would be wise to move Little or Roslovic off that combination in favor of Mathieu Perreault, a long-underrated play driver who has played at center in the past.

Either way, it’s clear that injured winger Nikolaj Ehlers is missed, whether Ehlers would line up with Wheeler and Scheifele (allowing Connor to boost Laine), or if Ehlers could join up with Laine.

  • The Jets aren’t lighting opponents up possession-wise.

Perhaps Winnipeg is coasting through the season while saving that “extra gear” for the postseason, but they’re not necessarily dominant by certain measures.

Before that Bruins game, Money Puck tweeted that the Jets have been looking like an “average team” at times in 2018-19, and that they were stronger according to the same expected goals metrics last season. Looking at Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg is middle-of-the-pack by a variety of standards, including Corsi and Fenwick. They can’t explain it away by “shot quality” alone, as they’re middling in high-danger scoring chances, too.

Again, this isn’t to say that the Jets are a “paper tiger.” There’s plenty of talent on hand, and this team’s also dealt with substantial injuries to the likes of Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien.

That said …

  • They might indeed want to spend at the trade deadline.

On Monday, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun postulated that there might be something of an arms race between the Jets and the Nashville Predators during the deadline (sub required).

Winnipeg was happy with the addition of Paul Stastny last season, and there have been murmurs about Derick Brassard, but this could be a time for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to gamble a bit.

For one thing, this team may very well need a bigger boost than you’d think, at least considering some of the struggles depicted in their underlying numbers.

Really, though, this might be the Jets’ best chance. Both Laine and Connor are due significant raises with their rookie contracts set to expire after this season, and Jacob Trouba needs a new deal as an RFA, too. Much like the Maple Leafs, things could really start to get tight for the Jets once they pay some of their brilliant young players — and they might lose some key ones in the process.

Cap Friendly projects the Jets’ deadline cap space at about $26.45 million. They should spend as much of it as ownership will allow.

***

Again, this situation is far from “doom and gloom,” as the Jets are set to be a competitive team for some time. Maybe some of their sneaky (possession stats) and headline-grabbing (Laine slump) issues could actually inspire this patient franchise to go bold, and possibly win big in the process?

Ultimately, Winnipeg’s challenges – and ambitions – could really spice things up during the trade deadline. Again.

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.