The way the Winnipeg Jets vs St. Louis Blues first-round playoff series has been going there’s a good chance all seven games are going to be needed to decide a winner. Theoretically this will favor the Jets since they have home ice advantage if it goes the distance, but at the moment you could argue the edge would actually go to the visiting Blues.
The series is deadlocked at 2-2 with each team playing like road warriors by winning their two contests in the other club’s barn. Of course, for those fans who have been shelling out a few hundred dollars each night to see their hometown heroes perform it’s been disappointing. But on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter where you win the games as long as you win them and manage to pull it off four times per series.
This is a tilt that many fans and experts believed would go six or seven games and it’s going to go a minimum of six. With the Blues taking the first two outings 2-1 and 4-3 in Winnipeg it looked like it could be a pretty quick affair though, but the Jets pumped half a dozen goals past Blues’ rookie goalie sensation Jordan Binnington in the first game in St. Louis to climb back into the series with a 6-3 win.
If you believe in momentum swings you may be able to offer some proof since the Jets then evened things up in game four with a 2-1 decision in overtime. Winnipeg seems to be improving with each outing while the Blues have been spinning their wheels somewhat. Binnington bounced back with a superb performance in game four, but suddenly his teammates have run into a stone wall at the other end of the ice in Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck’s save percentage for the series stands at 91.6 with Binnington’s at 90.2 while their goals-against averages are 2.48 and 2.94 respectively.
Winnipeg will now try to put home ice to good use since this is now a best-two-out-of-three showdown with two of the games being held at the Bell MTS Centre where the Jets went 25-12-4 during the regular season.
Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice is happy his top unit of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor is producing as Connor has three goals in the past two games including the overtime winner and Scheifele has chipped in with a pair in four games. The line has registered six goals and 15 points and is a combined plus-7.
On the other hand, Blues’ coach Craig Berube is hoping for more out of his top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. The trio has combined for just three goals and an assist in the four games and each of them is carrying a minus-3 rating around with them. And two of those goals came from Tarasenko with the man advantage while Schenn has yet to record a point and hasn’t had a shot on goal in the last two encounters.
The series has seen the Jets and Blues’ top lines going head to head most of the time, but Winnipeg’s proved to be the best in St. Louis by outscoring their counterparts 10-3. If that trend continues for the remainder of the series then Winnipeg will definitely be firmly entrenched in the driver’s seat.
Tarasenko, O’Reilly and Schenn could certainly get back on track though and need to play the way they did when Berube put the line together in the regular season when they reeled off a club record 17 consecutive victories. Although they played together for just part of the season, the Blues’ trio notched 63 points as a unit.
But while the teams’ top lines battle it out on the ice, the Jets’ best weapon so far has arguably been big defenseman Dustin Byfuglien who has a goal and five points while playing 25:42 on average per night. And although he’s now 34 years old, the 6-foot-5-inch, 260 lb bruiser is still a commanding physical presence on the ice. He’s also used to pulling his weight in the postseason with 20 goals and 47 points in 63 career contests and won a Stanley Cup ring in 2009/10 with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s obvious he possesses plenty of experience and leadership and is a calming presence on his young teammates. Byfuglien’s not really known as a high-scoring defenseman by today’s standards, but has posted 177 goals and 348 assists for 525 points in 869 regular-season games with Winnipeg, Chicago and the old Atlanta Thrashers franchise. However, he did start out as a forward when he broke into the NHL.
Perhaps Byfuglien has been so effective in the series with St. Louis because he’s a bit fresher at his age. He played a career-low 42 games this campaign because of a few separate injuries and didn’t return to the lineup until the end of March. He played the final five games of the season to prepare for the playoffs and the Jets faltered by going 9-9-1 when he was sidelined with his last ailment.
Byfuglien’s big body means he’s an ideal man to create havoc in front of Binnington and that’s what coach Maurice is counting on from him.
What happens next in this series is anyone’s guess. This we may not see a home-ice winner at all or one of the teams may suddenly take over on their own turf. But if the Jets are going to emerge victorious there’s no way to do it without winning at least once on home ice in the remaining three games.