Well, we didn’t see the Blues and the Jets coming in the first round of the playoffs, did we? Neither did Winnipeg, who as recently as January 17 were 31-14-2, but stumbled to a 16-16-3 record down the stretch. While the Jets were playing .500 hockey in their last 35 games, the Blues went 23-6-4 in their last 33. Obviously, the Blues had the emergence of Jordan Binnington to turn their season around. But what happened to turn Winnipeg’s season around in reverse?
It hasn’t been their power play. The Jets PP is 4th in the NHL and is tops in the western conference at 24.8%. The individual talent on their power play is perfectly matched, and they have a premier sniper in Patrick Laine. Laine regressed this year, after scoring 36 and then 44 goals in his first two seasons, he scored just 30 this year…five in one game against the Blues…and added 20 assists for a 50-point year. 32-year-old Blake Wheeler matched his career high for points with 91, but had 61 in 48 games before the All-Star Break, and just 30 points in 34 games after. Overall, Winnipeg’s top line performers struggled at 5-on-5 in the second half.
Add to those struggles that the Jets must face the Blues, and they might have some problems. No team is playing better right now than the Blues, who were a league best 8-1-1 in their last ten games. They have proven that they can beat any opponent in any building, and there are a lot of ways they’ve won.
- By dominating: Since the start of 2019, the Blues have outscored their opponents by 45 goals. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had an historic season, had a greater goal differential after the calendar turned than the Blues did. A big reason for that goal differential, of course, is Binnington. He led the NHL in GAA at 1.89 and took advantage of a stifling Blues defense that allowed just 26.7 shots per game, which was best in the NHL.
- By scoring from all over: The Blues had thirteen players that scored double digit goals during the regular season, led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s 33 and Ryan O’Reilly’s 28. Blues defensemen accounted for 46 goals, which was second in the NHL behind Carolina, and three blueliners had at least ten goals. It’s been a long time since the Blues had this kind of scoring depth, which bodes well for the playoffs.
- By buckling down defensively: The aforementioned shots against stat is a direct result of great defensive play by the entire team. When Craig Berube was promoted to interim head coach, Hall of Famer Larry Robinson came down to the ice to work with the d-men for a month. That tutelage paid huge dividends. Jay Bouwmeester used the knowledge, along with a healthy hip, to play as well as he had in several years. Colton Parayko regained the great form that he displayed as a rookie. Alex Pietrangelo’s game improved dramatically. And Robert Bortuzzo and Vince Dunn both ascended. Each and every Blues defenseman that played (Carl Gunnarsson was hurt) played much better after Robinson’s stint than they did before.
- By playing hard: Pre-Berube, Blues players often said after losses that they had been outworked. President of Hockey Operations and GM Doug Armstrong admitted that bothered him. Soon after Berube was hired, the Blues started playing hard more consistently, and didn’t have to admit that they weren’t trying hard. Berube is satisfied with his team’s effort more often than not, and that effort leads to success and ultimately to victories.
- By having their best players be their best players: In a league of stars, teams with great players that play well win games and championships. Since the first of the year, the Blues have been getting quality play from Tarasenko, O’Reilly, Pietrangelo, Parayko and Brayden Schenn. Aside from O’Reilly, all the others have played well previously in the post-season. O’Reilly hasn’t had the opportunity to go deep into the playoffs with Colorado or Buffalo, but he sure seems to be a playoff player.
- By getting great goaltending: We rightfully focus on Binnington because the team’s fortunes changed dramatically when he took over, and he will be THE guy in the playoffs. But the Blues wouldn’t have been able to get to the position they are without Jake Allen. He had a rugged start and never played at Enterprise Center after January 8. But playing exclusively on the road after that, Allen had a 2.15 GAA and a .930 save percentage. The Blues goalies combined for the best GAA in the league after January 1.
The things teams that win championships do…all the things the Blues have done in 2019, along with what Winnipeg has done after the All-Star break, make me believe the Blues can win this first round series in six games. Everything needed to win in the playoffs, the Blues have…and the guys they have are doing what they must. There’s nothing better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let the games begin.