After an uneven 82-game regular season that saw them decline by 15 points, and two more playoff losses on home ice, the Winnipeg Jets went to St. Louis and rediscovered the formidable form that brought them within three wins of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
Kyle Connor’s calm tap-in from Mark Scheifele’s centring pass at 6:02 of overtime gave the Jets a 2-1 win against the St. Louis Blues and a 2-2 tie in their first-round series that seemed improbable after the Jets lost the first two games in Winnipeg.
But they looked like a team transformed in St. Louis, handling the Blues 6-3 on Sunday to climb back in the series and then following with Tuesday’s powerful performance even rookie miracle-worker Jordan Binnington was unable to ruin from his place in the St. Louis net.
Binnington, the 25-year-old who went 24-5-1 to magnificently seize his National Hockey League chance after the Blues promoted him from the minors in January, was superb again on Tuesday. And still it wasn’t enough for St. Louis.
He made 37 saves but after the last of them, Scheifele collected his own rebound to Binnington’s right, briefly froze the netminder and then slid the puck to Connor for his third goal in three games. Connor scored only three times in the Jets’ 17-game playoff run a year ago when Winnipeg was one of the Cup favourites.
No one was picking them this year.
Although the Jets finished ahead of the Blues on a tie-breaker, St. Louis was the best team in the NHL in the second half of the season. The Jets finished the season 2-4-1. They looked like two teams speeding in opposite directions.
But the best skaters the last two games were nearly all Jets: the Scheifele-Connor-Blake Wheeler line, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, winger Patrik Laine.
No one will know until Game 5 on Thursday if the Jets are really back, or whether the last two games were merely another fleeting summit in a season of peaks and valleys. But it has been a while since Winnipeg looked this good.
“Now we’re fired up,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “Obviously we came in here in a hole and with a job to do and mission accomplished. We’re playing well. It’s a helluva series.”
Yes, it is.
Obviously stung by their performance on Sunday, the Blues outshot the Jets 8-0 in the first 10 minutes Tuesday. But Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck was sharp, his teammates settled themselves with the help of a power play and the Jets gradually took over the game from there.
Shots were 39-24 for Winnipeg over the final 56 minutes.
And yet, Binnington had the Blues 12 1/2 minutes away from a 3-1 series lead before Scheifele worked a give-and-go with Connor to tie Game 4 1-1 at 7:33 of the third period.
Scheifele reached bravely to redirect the return pass into the top corner as he crashed into Binnington. The Jets’ centre, who had seven shots on goal and 11 attempts, ended up on the ice with Binnington’s stick.
He heaved it away. If only the Jets could do the same with Binnington, but the Calder Trophy candidate followed Winnipeg’s tying goal by making a succession of close-range saves against Brandon Tanev, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor and Laine as the Blues were being overrun. He also somehow saved a double deflection last touched by Wheeler.
“Heckuva play for those two guys,” Wheeler said of Scheifele’s finish from Connor on the tying goal. “When he gets going downhill like that, he’s pretty tough to stop. That’s Mark Scheifele, man.”
Hellebuyck was as perfect as Binnington until Vladimir Tarasenko made it 1-0 35 seconds into the third period on a St. Louis power play. With Mathieu Perreault in the penalty box for a high cross-check – the Jet doubled-down by taking another careless penalty late in regulation time – Tarasenko lasered a shot from the left-wing circle past Hellebuyck’s glove.
The goal imperilled the Jets, but did not deter them.
“The consistency comes from a belief in what you’re seeing,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s a harder sell for me to tell you that after Games 1 and 2, but we liked big chunks of our games there. And the players know it. So even when you’re down one and you’re facing a goaltender that’s having a real special night, it really isn’t an option for you, how you’re going to go forward. You’re not going to change anything because you like the way you’re playing. This was our best game.”
Binnington had not lost consecutive NHL games until Tuesday. The two losses equal the Blues’ second-longest losing streak since December.
“We knew it was going to be a hard series, right?” Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We took two in their building. So, regroup and hopefully steal another one in there.
“The series is tied for a reason; both teams have played well. You don’t see the road team steal two in each building very often but it makes us feel good going into the next one.”
We’re guessing the Jets feel even better.