The Winnipeg Jets were in enemy territory for the past two games of their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff matchup with the St. Louis Blues. Down 2-0 in the series heading into Game 3, they were on a mission to win both and turn the series into a best-of-three.
“Came here with a job to do and mission accomplished,” said an amped-up Blake Wheeler after his team captured a Game 4 overtime win to knot the series at two games apiece.
Here are just three thoughts on the Jets’ pair of one-goal triumphs.
3) Goaltending Was Imperative
The goaltender is any NHL team’s most important member, especially in the playoffs, when teams live or die by their masked men. A team could put in a subpar performance but get bailed out by great feats in the crease, or conversely, they could put up a strong effort but lose because their goaltender allowed a bad goal at a bad time.
There are many instances of goaltenders playing key roles in puck-stopping their squads to Stanley Cup glory: look to Cam Ward’s 2006 performance for the Carolina Hurricanes and Tim Thomas’ performance in 2011 for the Boston Bruins — both won the Conn Smythe Trophy — as just two examples of the importance of good goaltending.
While neither fourth-year goalie Connor Hellebuyck nor rookie sensation Jordan Binnington have played to “Ward-ian” or “Thomas-esque” levels (nor could they have, given it’s only Round 1) the quality of goaltending loomed large in Games 3 and 4.
In Game 3, the Jets finally got to Binnington and put up a six-spot, even though through 20 minutes it seemed they’d have to make some type of ritual sacrifice to get one behind him.
In Game 4, Binnington proved he’s more mature than the average rookie and that he wasn’t rattled by allowing more than four goals in a game for the first time in his NHL career. It took the Jets nearly 50 minutes to break his shutout bid, and even then, it took a perfectly-placed shot from Mark Scheifele to do so. If not for his play, the Jets could have easily had two or three goals before Schiefele’s tally.
Hellebuyck was strong in Games 3 and 4, especially in Game 4, when he turned aside 31 out of 32 shots. He made a number of important saves in the second and third — a shoulder save off a Jaden Schwartz chance in particular — and the only puck past him was a Vladimir Tarasenko power play bullet.
Like Binnington, Hellebuyck was in need of some bounce-back performances. In Game 1, he was one of the best Jets but simply got out duelled by his counterpart. In Game 2, he was terrible and — although the defiant 25-year-old wouldn’t admit it — allowed three absolute softies.
When you compare Hellebyuck’s stats — 10 goals against, a 2.48 Goals-Against Average (GAA) and a .916 Save Percentage (SV%) — to Binnington’s — 12 goals against, a 2.92 GAA and a .902 SV% — the numbers seem to favour the former. However, Binnington had better regular season numbers and his six-goal game looks like an anomaly.
While neither team has a substantial edge in the crease, goaltending played a factor in all four games so far and there’s no reason to believe it won’t in the next two or three.
If Hellebuyck’s penchant for allow weak goals arises again, it will sink the Jets.
2) Laine Turned in a Pair of Complete Performances
Laine didn’t light the lamp Tuesday, but played his strongest game in recent memory.
Although Laine was held off the scoresheet in Game 4 for the first time in the series, he’s registered three goals so far — two of which were of the ‘Laine laser’ variety — and added an assist. Even more importantly, he’s elevated his game in general and has looked engaged and good at both ends, a refreshing change from the Laine that was often a detriment in the d-zone this season.
In the Jets’ two wins, he’s forced turnovers, such as in Game 3 before he got behind the Blues’ blue liners, receiving a Kyle Connor pass, and tucked the puck in glove-side in one seamless motion on Binnington. His puck handling has been good and his skating has been powerful.
He’s also used his 6-foot-5 frame to punish his opponents, something he hasn’t done nearly enough of in his three NHL seasons. On Tuesday, he belted David Perron and has dished out 11 hits already.
Nikolaj Ehlers summed up his linemate’s effort and drive well on Wednesday.
“He’s playing the game and he’s playing it hard,” Ehlers said. “He’s going out and he’s finishing hits, putting pucks deep, going down and getting the pucks and shooting, That’s his game. The way he’s playing right now is fun to watch, and he’s got to keep doing that.” (From ‘Spring sprung, grass riz… Blue goalie learns how dangerous Laine is,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 04/15/19.)
He’s gotta keep doing that, indeed. Laine’s strong showing in the playoffs is just the most recent development in what’s been a tumultuous and trying, sometimes outstanding but more often frustrating, last 12 months for the young sniper.
There’s little point in rehashing his regular season in detail for the sake of this piece, as this writer’s covered it all before. There was his sputtering start, his outstanding Finnish homecoming, his ridiculous 18-goal November, a long drought that got many wondering how much the size of his next contract would be impacted as a result, his successful stint on the top line as a playmaker to Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, and then another goal drought to end the season.
In case you’ve got a couple extra hours to spend reading about Laine, the above paragraph’s got you covered.
With so many ups and downs, it’s tough to put any stock in what Laine does. The only thing he does consistently is be inconsistent, and no one disproves the ‘hot hand’ fallacy quite like the Finn.
He could fall right back to being a hang-on guy or a detriment, or he could continue to be a big boon. It’s hard to say what he’ll bring going forward.
That just makes him all the more worth watching, though. While four strong games definitely don’t outweigh the dozens of dates in 2018-19 that he either did nothing or actually hurt the Jets, a few more big efforts in the next week might tip the scales a bit.
1) Jets’ Top Line Showed Top-Notch Stuff
In the playoffs, teams need their best players to be at their best. Over the past two games, the Jets’ top trio of Connor, Scheifele, and Wheeler have been just that.
In the past two games, they’ve exhibited a deadly combination of will, grit, speed, hands, and vision. In Game 4, they was flying and produced both of the Jets’ goals and all six of their points. Both goals were collective efforts, with all three chipping in.
On Scheifele’s third period game-tying goal, Wheeler drove through the neutral zone with speed, Scheifele made a great dish to Connor heading into the zone, and then Connor returned the favour by getting a perfectly-timed pass behind Vince Dunn back his centreman, who went top-corner on Binnington.
The three hooked up again for the overtime game-winner in a similar fashion. It once again began with Wheeler in the neutral zone, this time deftly side-stepping a check before barreling into the zone like a dog after a meat truck. He got it over to Scheifele, who took a quick shot, pounced on his own rebound, and had the vision and hands to thread it over to Connor, who was all alone in front of the empty net.
“There’s one of two ways a player or at team can go in thee big moments, “You can either shrink in the moment of get real big,” TSN’s Bob McKenzie said. “Scheifele, Connor, and Wheeler got real big… You could just sense as the game went along, they got stronger and stronger. Every time they were on the ice, they were in the offensive zone making things happen.”
They combined for four goals (three from Connor, including an absolute snipe in Game 3) and nine points in St. Louis on Sunday and Tuesday, and have 14 points in the series overall. They created a lot of chances at Enterprise Center, with six shots in Game 3 and 13 in Game 4.
It’s been a much-welcome — if not mandatory — return to form after they were MIA during the Jets’ listless stretch run. Scheifele especially looked a step behind and not as engaged, posting just five points and often being a minus-player in the Jets’ final 10.
However, that was then and this is now, as head coach Paul Maurice singled out the alternate captain in particular as “a special player tonight” for his Game 4 performance. Maurice and others compared the top trio’s play and to their play during last season’s run to the Western Conference Final.
“They look the same again… the little extra skill that not a lot of people have comes out, but the hardness in their game. Those three guys did a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of good work. Mark was a line driver for sure,” Maurice said.
“They drive for our team,” Josh Morrissey agreed. “All three of those guys and Mark in particular, took his game to another level and I mean, looking at last year’s playoffs, that’s what we see… he was huge.”
If the Jets want to advance to the second round, it’s imperative that their big guns keep firing at the rate they did in St. Louis.
One Battle Won, but War Will Rage On
With the “mission” to take two in St. Lou is complete, the Jets have now set their sights on a new operation: win two out of the next three and get to the next stage of the deep Cup run everyone is expecting and that they should be able to make given their talent. To make a first-round exit would be a huge disappointment — maybe not as much of a catastrophe failure as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s shocking collapse — but a failure nonetheless.
To accomplish that mission, they’ll have to do something neither team has done in this exciting and evenly-matched series as yet: win a game on home ice.