When we were celebrating the turn of the calendar to 2019, few would have predicted the St. Louis Blues would not only get to the playoffs, but be the hottest team out of the Central to get there.
In a tight race for the division title came down to the last day of the regular season, St. Louis and Winnipeg just missed out on first place, meaning the two heavy hitters line up against one another in the first round. Both should be considered contenders for their own reasons, though their outlooks are entirely different.
Here’s how the Blues and Jets match up in Round 1:
5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
St. Louis: 51.50 CF% (10th), 53.04 GF% (10th), .921 SV% (12th), 8.1 SH% (14th), 1.002 PDO (13th)
Winnipeg: 48.97 CF% (19th), 50.61 GF% (15th), .923 SV% (8th), 8.37 SH% (10th), 1.007 PDO (7th)
St. Louis: 21.1 PP% (110th), 81.5 PK% (9th), 244 GF (14th), 220 GA (5th)
Winnipeg: 24.8 PP% (4th), 79.1 PK% (23rd), 270 GF (7th), 243 GA (15th)
St. Louis: 1-2-1
The Skinny: After reaching the Western Conference final a year ago, Winnipeg backed into these playoffs and let the division title slip away from them — if not for a Game 82 win over Arizona, home-ice advantage would have slipped away from them as well.
This is the tale of two seasons, for both sides. As the 2018 portion of the schedule came to a close, the Jets were 25-12-2, which made them the best team in the West, while St. Louis had a 15-18-4 mark that had them at the bottom of the conference. But in 2019 it was St. Louis leading the West with a 30-10-5 record, while Winnipeg’s 22-18-3 record was 17th league-wide.
Much of Winnipeg’s struggles had to do with the fact Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey both missed time in the second half, which had a hugely negative impact on the team’s success. Without them, the Jets ranked 29th in the NHL in shots percentage at 5-on-5 in the league. Byfuglien is back and the hope is Morrissey will be soon as well — that alone should breathe new life into the Jets.
St. Louis was always thought to be a strong team, but it wasn’t until a young, hot shot goaltender arrived in Jordan Binnington that things started to settle. Along with him, Vladimir Tarasenko‘s goal scoring recovered as he converted on a 43-goal pace in the second half of the season, while Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn were two of the NHL’s top eight scoring blueliners in 2019.
Everything starts anew in the playoffs, but one team is clearly coming in with the hotter hand.
St. Louis Blues X-Factor: Armed with all the momentum a team can muster and a legitimate Stanley Cup threat, what turned around St. Louis’ season? Jordan Binnington.
The rookie netminder posted a shutout his first NHL start Jan. 7 as an unknown minor-leaguer. In 29 starts since, Binnington has posted a .927 save percentage and an otherworldly 1.89 goals-against average to go with his 23-5-1 record and five shutouts while setting a franchise record for most wins by a rookie netminder.
Who saw that coming? (Put your hand down. No one saw that coming.)
Binnington’s play also seemed to wake up what looked like a sleepy St. Louis squad. Since taking over the crease, the Blues have rediscovered the art of goal-scoring – just ask Tarasenko, who has been one of the most dominant forwards in the league since the calendar turned – and are much stronger on the blue line. Interim head coach Craig Berube should get a ton of credit here, too, of course, but it’s the man in the blue paint with a hot hand and ice in his veins who can take the Blues from feel-good comeback story to legitimate Stanley Cup threat.
Winnipeg Jets X-Factor: If momentum counts for anything in the post-season, the Jets could be in trouble. The club started 2018-19 atop many Stanley Cup prediction pieces, and while their solid play throughout much of the season tells us they deserve to remain there, their late-season struggles are cause for concern.
Injuries have contributed, but mysteriously chemistry been an issue here too.
Sometimes the right answer is also the most obvious: If the Jets are to get their mojo back in the playoffs, they have to be able to play their signature brand of hard-hitting, play-making hockey, and it has to start at the top with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. A quick glance at both skaters’ stat sheets tells us they’re enjoying one of the best campaigns of their respective careers (Scheifele’s 38 goals and 84 points are career-bests, and Wheeler reached the 90-point plateau almost entirely on assists as one of the NHL’s best play-makers once again).
Only, the duo has been largely absent down the stretch, coinciding with the Jets’ struggles to separate themselves from the pack. Depth scoring has proven to be effective in their absence, but in order for the Jets to prove a lot of predictions right, they’ll need Scheifele and Wheeler back in mid-season form.
Colton Parayko, undisclosed (day-to-day)
Sammy Blais, ankle (day-to-day)
Josh Morrissey, upper-body
Brandon Tanev, upper-body