Wed. May 22nd, 2019

NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Jets vs. Blues

After years of mediocrity and futility, the Jets finally broke through last year, winning their first two playoff series in franchise history en route to an appearance in the conference finals (they had never even a playoff game in two previous appearances). This year, with much of the same core still intact, they continued their regular season success and once again earned home ice in the first round. This year, however, they will be looking to go farther than the conference finals; their eyes are fixed on the Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, the Blues have been a consistent playoff team in the 2010s, last season aside. However, despite this regular season success in this stretch. the Blues have consistently struggled in the postseason, only making the conference finals once in this span. In fact, the Blues have only made the conference finals three times since 1970 (1986, 2001, 2016), and have failed to make the Stanley Cup Finals during this entire stretch. This Blues team, after an abysmal start to the season (they occupied the 31st spot in the league standings at the beginning of January), have made an incredible surge late in the year to put themselves back into the playoffs, and now look to finally erase all the misery of years past and win the Cup.

In their first playoff clash, will the Jets send Saint Louis back singing the blues? Or, can the Blues force a ground stop before the Jets can even take off?

OFFENSE

The Jets boast a lethal offense that ranked 7th in the league at 3.29 goals per game. With a top six led by Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and the streaky Patrick Laine, the Jets boast a wide range of threats up front that opponents have to try and neutralize. The secondary scoring can also chip in if necessary but hasn’t consistently made the major contributions that the top 6 has throughout the year.

The Blues, meanwhile, began the year with most of their key contributors struggling, and only picked it up for the last half of the season. Thus, their offense ended up right near average, scoring an average of 2.98 goals per game (15th in the league). Ryan O’Reilly led the way with 77 points, but they got some great production from guys like Tarasenko, Schenn, Perron, and Pietrangelo down the home stretch. The Blues also boast a relatively balanced attack, where all their lines can potentially score on their opposition. However, even with the Blues turning it on in the last half of the season, I still give the slight edge to Winnipeg.

Advantage: Jets

DEFENSE

The Jets have one of the biggest and most physical blue lines in the league, led by Dustin Byfuglien. However, with Byfuglien injured for a substantial part of the season, the slack fell on guys like Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Nathan Beaulieu. While they stood in and got the Jets through, their defense slipped to 15th in goals against at 2.96. If Byfuglien can be back and at 100%, plus get Josh Morrissey back from injury, that could be a huge addition back onto the Jets blue line.

Meanwhile, despite the poor start for the Blues, they finished at 5th in goals allowed at 2.68. Their blue line is anchored by Alex Pietrangelo, with other guys like Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester also helping to chip in both offensively and defensively. Their defense is also relatively balanced, and is not as physical, but is still capable of really shutting their opposition down. The questions on Winnipeg’s blue line matched against a more consistent and deep Blues defense tip the scales here towards Saint Louis.

Advantage: Blues

GOALTENDING

The Jets will ride with their starter Connor Hellebuyck, who took a step back from a spectacular campaign last season. This year, he only posted a .913 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average and was prone to giving up a couple of bad goals at costly times in games. Jets fans hope he can return to last year’s spectacular form, and if so he could be the difference in this series. As it stands now, though, their goalie situation is average.

Meanwhile, rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington has been beyond fantastic this year, posting a 24-5-1 record, a .927 save percentage, and a 1.89 GAA. Behind a solid blue line, Binnington has flourished in his first season as a starter and has been nothing short of a miracle-worker and the catalyst behind the Blues’ turnaround. The inconsistent Jake Allen serves as a backup, but has playoff experience and can step in if Binnington struggles or is injured. The big question mark is the fact that Binnington is a rookie, and it is unclear if he will perform at the same level in the high-pressure situation of the playoffs. However, Binnington at his best gets the edge over Hellebuyck.

Advantage: Blues

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Jets boast one of the best power plays in the league at 24.8% (4th), due in no small part to their firepower up front. Their penalty kill, however, only clocks in at 79.1%, 23rd in the league, bringing their special teams total to 103.9% (100% is considered average).

The Blues have a weaker power play (although still formidable) at 21.1%, good for 10th in the league. However, their PK is stronger at 81.5% (9th), bringing their overall total to 102.6%. With such even stats, I’ll defer to the stronger PP and give the slight edge to Winnipeg.

Advantage: Jets

COACHING

The Jets are coached by Paul Maurice, who has coached in the NHL since 1995 with the Hartford Whalers. He has made three conference finals and one Cup Final as a head coach, although he has yet to win a Cup. He has a 34-40 record in 6 playoff appearances and a 9-12 record with two appearances in Winnipeg.

The Blues are headed by Craig Berube, who has only coached in one NHL playoff series prior to this, a seven-game defeat to the Rangers with the Flyers in 2014. However, he has turned the Blues around since taking over for Mike Yeo, going 38-19-6. I’m still giving the edge to the more experienced coach, however.

Advantage: Jets

SEASON SERIES

Oct 4-Jets 5, Blues 1 in St Louis

Oct 22-Jets 5, Blues 4 (OT) in Winnipeg

Nov 24-Jets 8, Blues 4 in St Louis

Dec 7-Blues 1, Jets 0 in Winnipeg

Jets: 3-1 in season series, 1-1 at home, 2-0 at St Louis

Blues: 1-2-1 in season series, 0-1-1 at home, 1-1 at Winnipeg (all games occurred before the massive turnaround at the beginning of the year)

Advantage: Jets

COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…

The Jets lost 6 of their last 9, including 5 of those games in regulation. However, they did win their last game.

The Blues won 9 of their last 12 and only lost one game in regulation in that span. They have won their last 2.

Advantage: Blues

OTHER FACTORS

The Jets have only won two playoff series in franchise history, dating back to their founding in 1999 as the Atlanta Thrashers. Both those occurred last season when they finally won their first playoff game in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Blues have won at least a series in their last two appearances. These teams have never met in the playoffs.

PREDICTION

This series is incredibly difficult to predict due to how close these teams really match up. However, I’m going to lean towards the more balanced squad in Saint Louis to pull it out. I think their defense will do enough to neutralize the firepower that Winnipeg will bring to the table, Binnington will rise to the occasion, and the balanced offensive attack scores enough on Hellebuyck to win the series and move on to the second round.

Prediction: Blues in 6

GAME ONE: Wed, 8pm, NHLNetwork (nat’l), SN (Jets), FS MW (Blues)

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