If recent form has meaningful value, then the Blues should prevail over Winnipeg in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
This has been pointed out by, well, everyone. So let’s do it again and set the table.
The Blues went 1-2-1 vs. Winnipeg during the regular season.
But that record is worthless, because the teams haven’t met since Dec. 7.
The Blues team that won a single game in four tries against Winnipeg this season?
It no longer exists.
Back then the Blues, an ungodly mess, had recently fired Mike Yeo. On Nov. 24, Craig Berube’s second game as coach, the Blues were embarrassed by Winnipeg, losing 8-4 at Enterprise Center. The otherwise forgettable game was made notable by Patrik Laine’s five-goal scoring spree for the visitors.
An interesting thing happened when the teams met the next time, Dec. 7 in Winnipeg. The Blues weren’t playing great by then — but they were about to. And the Blues’ 1-0 win at Winnipeg that day was an indicator of future trends.
After their next game, a grotesque 6-1 loss to Vancouver, the Blues began their stunning turnaround in earnest.
The talk of the Blues’ resurgence usually focuses on the start of the new year, and their record since Jan. 3. And that’s for an understandable reason; the Blues had the fewest points (34) among the 31 NHL teams on Jan. 2.
Beginning Jan. 3, the Blues kicked in for an amazing 30-10-3 record over their final 43 games, with goaltender Jordan Binnington making his first start on Jan. 7 to key the team’s revival.
From Jan. 3 until the end of the regular season, the Blues led the NHL with 65 points, one more than mighty Tampa Bay.
Pardon my nerdness, but I feel compelled to get into something before moving forward.
If we go by team points, yes, the Blues were at the bottom of the league on Jan. 2. That’s also misleading. At that stage of the season the Blues had played only 37 games, fewest in the NHL. Through the second day of the new calendar year, 19 NHL teams had already played 40 or more games.
Point is, the Blues’ league-low points total (34) on Jan. 2 lacked proper context. The ensuing easy-fit media narrative failed to take into account the team’s subtle improvement through the end of the 2018 calendar year.
Including that 1-0 win at Winnipeg the Blues were 6-5 in their final 11 games of 2018. That stretch included an encouraging 5-2 run that showcased renewed focus, a more intense effort, sharper goaltending and Berube’s ability to clean up his team’s disorganized ways.
So on Jan. 2, the Blues weren’t the worst team in the league. Not if you go by the more accurate points-percentage standings. On Jan. 2 the Blues were 15-18-4, ranked 25th in the NHL with a points percentage of .459. That’s bad … but definitely not the worst.
We weren’t sure what to make of it at the time. But for the Blues, the final three weeks of 2018 offered a glimpse of the better days ahead.
If anything Berube deserves more credit — nationally and locally — for his exceptional work as coach.
People are so hung on the Jan. 3 starting date, they’re overlooking the many positive steps in December. To put it another way: Berube’s rehabilitation of Blues’ hockey began paying off, with results, on Dec. 11.
And that’s really impressive considering that Binnington didn’t start his first contest until 27 days later.
If you want an accurate measure of when the Blues began to pull themselves — and the crumbling season — together, Dec. 11 is the real date.
SINCE DEC. 11:
The Blues went 35-14-5 for a .694 points percentage that was No. 2 overall (to Tampa Bay), and the best among the 16 Western Conference teams. The Note’s 75 points since Dec. 11 was tops in the West, and No. 2 to Tampa Bay’s 79.
In fact, the Blues’ 75 points since Dec. 11 were easily the most in the West — eight points better than Calgary, 11 points more than San Jose, and 14 points higher than Nashville, Chicago, and Winnipeg. And that points total has credibility simply because the Blues had the No. 1 points percentage of all teams teams in the West since Dec. 11.
This wasn’t a case of the Blues posting a misleadingly enhanced points total by having more games than anyone else over that time.
Best Points Percentage, Western Conference, since Dec. 11:
1. St. Louis, .694
2. Calgary, .657
3. San Jose, .640
4. Chicago, .598
5. Nashville, .587
6. Vegas, .580
7. Winnipeg, .575.
I cut the list at Winnipeg for an obvious reason: the relevant comparison between the Blues and Jets since Dec. 11 … four days after their final regular-season meeting.
“The Blues are playing really well,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler told media outlets that cover the team. “Since the last time we saw them, outside of Tampa Bay they have the best record in the NHL.”
And of course the Blues’ most successful stretch of the season — the rolling-tank surge since Jan. 3 — is quite the contrast to Winnipeg’s trend.
SINCE JAN. 3
The Blues went 30-10-5 for a conference-leading points percentage of .722.
Over the same period of time, the Jets were 22-18-3 for a .547 points percentage that ranked eighth in the West.
But the Blues’ superiority over Winnipeg at 5-on-5 play is even more profound. The only way I can reinforce my opinion is to present the revealing set of metrics, culled from Natural Stat Trick.
Here are the teams’ respective NHL rankings at 5-on-5 play since Jan. 3:
Corsi For Percentage: St. Louis 53.1, ranking 7th overall. Winnipeg 26th overall at 47.2.
Shots For Percentage: STL third overall at 54.6; WPG 28th at 46.3.
Goals For Percentage: STL first at 59.8; WPG 17th at 50.8.
Scoring Chances For Percentage: STL third at 54.04; WPG 28th at 46.07.
High Danger Scoring Chances For Percentage: STL first at 57.9; WPG 27th at 48.9
Overall Save Percentage: STL fourth at .934; WPG ninth at .926
Scoring Chance Save Percentage: STL second at .898; WPG 11th at .878.
High-Danger Save Percentage: Blues seventh at .844; WPG 17th at .824.
Those save percentages can be fine-tuned. Assuming that Binnington starts every game of this series for the Blues, matched up against Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, here’s how the goalies performed at 5-on-5 since Binnington took over as the STL starter on Jan. 7.
Ranking Among NHL Goalies With At Least 1,000 Minutes at 5-on-5:
⇒ Binnington first in the NHL at .941 …
⇒ Hellebuyck is 27th at .920.
High-Danger Save Percentage:
⇒ Binnington fifth in the league at .866 …
⇒ Hellebuyck is 41st at .807.
Binnington’s inexperience is a wild-card factor here. He’ll be making his first career postseason start at Winnipeg on Wednesday in Game 1.
Hellebuyck — who at 24 is actually a year younger than Binnington — was outstanding in his NHL postseason debut last spring. As a major force in Winnipeg’s drive to the conference final — where they lost to Vegas — Hellebuyck had a .929 save percentage at 5-on-5. And his .808 high-danger save percentage was fifth among goaltenders that played in at least 10 postseason games.
There are many other factors that will determine this series, including the special teams. But we’ll save that for another day.
The foundation of postseason hockey — or any hockey, for that matter — is effective 5-on-5 play and sturdy goaltending. Based on an extensive body of work that began Dec. 11 and really took root on Jan. 3, the Blues performed at much higher level than Winnipeg in controlling play at 5-on-5. And the Blues had the more dynamic goaltender in the rookie Binnington.
That’s why MoneyPuck gives St. Louis a 61.7 percent chance of ousting Winnipeg in the first round.
You may be surprised to learn that only one team — Tampa Bay, which faces Columbus — has a better chance (64.4%) than the Blues to advance to the second round.
Thanks for reading …