Playoff Preview: Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blue and Winnipeg Jets will meet in the first round of the playoffs and it is sure to be, in the words of Paul Maurice, a “grinder.”

The Blues are in the dance thanks to a masterful comeback. They were last in the NHL on January 2, then went on a tear that included an 11-game winning streak. From February 1 to the end of the season, St. Louis was 23-6-4 – second only to Tampa Bay’s 25-5-2 record in that span.

The Jets kind of took an opposite course, going 14-14-3 after February 1. Before then, they led the Central Division with 68 points. They squeezed out a second-place thanks to their quality play during the last four games of the season, plus their advantage in regulation-to-overtime wins. Clearly, Winnipeg would like to get out of the playoff gate a little stronger.

The Blues play a strong system game and that’ll give the Jets a bit of work. Injuries pressed Winnipeg to the problem point and Josh Morrissey is still on the shelf, although he could be back soon. Dustin Byfuglien also missed considerable time, which led the Jets to drop to 29th overall in shots percentage during even-strength situations.

Scoring

Vladimir Tarasenko led the Blues in goals with 33, including 16 since February 2. He has a dozen goals on the power play and there’s no sign of him slowing down in the post-season. Tarasenko has 22 goals in 44 playoff games and there’s every reason to expect he’ll be a threat. Along with Alex Ovechkin, he’s had at least 30 goals in each of the last five seasons.

As a team, St. Louis was in the middle of the pack overall for goal-scoring. Ryan O’Reilly is on top with points with 77, nine above Tarasenko’s totals. Brayden Schenn had 54 points in 72 games, while David Perron had 46 points in 57 games. Schenn has shifted from centre to the wing on a line with O’Reilly and Tarasenko and the results seemed immediate, with the forward scoring eight goals and 20 assists in 28 games. He polished off the regular season on a four-game point streak.

With 2.98 goals per game, the Blues were 15th overall. Their power play was 10th, clicking at 21.1 percent.

The Jets’ power play is more effective at 24.8 percent, putting them fifth overall in the NHL. They scored 62 power play goals, but they’ll be in tough against St. Louis’ penalty kill. Their 270 goals set them up as the seventh most effective offence in the league and that’s due in large part to playing a daunting, difficult style.

Mark Scheifele put up 38 goals and a total of 84 points for a career-best season, while Blake Wheeler chimed in with 91 points. The lion’s share of Wheeler’s output came from assists, although he did have 20 goals. The Jets will need the two to come alive, however, as they seem to have slipped a little down the stretch.

Making space is important for Winnipeg’s offensive game and that’s why it comes back to Byfuglien. His presence alone allows the Jets to produce the attack they require, with the team’s “expected goals share” irrefutably increasing when he’s on the ice. That means Winnipeg can push action from physicality, but they’ll need to get their lines rolling to have success against the Blues.

Defence

The methodical play of the Blues allows them to hold down shots and keep opportunities away from the opposition. During the regular season, St. Louis allowed just 2,345 shots on goal – fourth fewest in the league. They coughed up just 72 goals against from February 1 to the end of the season, the best defensive effort in that period. Only the Dallas Stars touched the mark, albeit in one fewer game.

St. Louis’ Carl Gunnarsson and Alex Pietrangelo are usually seen as the top pairing.  Gunnarsson only recently returned to the lineup after missing 24 games with injury and he’s been held to just 25 games this season overall. Despite feeling rusty, there’s a sense that Gunnarsson could be ready to return to his regular complement of ice time.

Pietrangelo, meanwhile, posted 41 points this season – including 13 goals. Vince Dunn had 12 goals and 35 points for the Blues, including two goals against the Penguins during a March tangle. Colton Parayko will also draw heavy duty against the Jets, averaging 22:47 of ice time a game.

While the Blues play a system-oriented variety of defence, the Jets play a tempo-and-physicality game. That starts with Byfuglien, who’s as present on offence as he is on defence. He’s responsible for clearing the middle of the ice on most nights and that both protects his net and keeps the lane clear for generating an attack. Byfuglien averages 24:22 of ice time a game.

Speaking of generating offence, Jacob Trouba posted 50 points this season – including 42 assists. He produced 162 shots on goal and can generate a solid point shot, which keeps him a fixture on the line. He even had three short-handed points, which suggests a flair for the dramatic on the penalty kill.

With Morrissey possibly set to go by Game One on Wednesday, the full guard of Winnipeg’s defence should be on tap. Morrissey did miss the last 20 games of the season, but he still managed 31 points in 59 outings. He averages 22:24 of ice time a game.

Goaltending

Jordan Binnington has been making his case for the Calder Trophy. The Blues netminder has a 24-5-1 record, with a .927 save percentage and a 1.89 goals against average. Since he took over as starter on January 1, St. Louis stiffened up yet again and allowed just 27.3 shots against per game – second fewest to the Boston Bruins.

That sort of defensive lockdown can profit any goalie, but Binnington really is special. He took the number one gig from Jake Allen, who went 19-17-8 with a 2.84 goals against and a .905 save percentage. He had three shutouts and was an appalling .375 in the shootout, compared to Binnington’s .909 percentage in the shootout.

Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t been playing at the Vezina-finalist stride of last season, but he is still a large part of why the Jets are even here. He went 34-23-3 with a 2.90 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. He was 6-3-1 down the stretch, with a .930 save percentage since March 14.

Laurent Brossoit is the backup, going 13-6-2 with a 2.52 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. That’s a shade better than his career average. Against high danger scoring chances, he tapers down to a .841 save percentage – which is pretty good among goalies who’ve played at least 20 games.

Prediction

As mentioned, this is going to be a battle. It should be a physical, crushing series for both teams. The Blues will pit their system up against the Jets’ harsh style. Winnipeg will hope to create space and generate offence, but that might be rough against an orderly St. Louis squad. If it comes down to goaltending, Binnington could steal the show in the playoffs. And if that happens, the Jets are done.

This is a tough series to call, but the Blues will edge it out in seven.

(Photo credit: John Woods/CP)

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