Before the puck dropped for this Central Division tilt, the Winnipeg Jets (47-30-5) and St. Louis Blues (45-28-9) appeared to be moving in opposite directions. The former had petered out down the stretch and posted a 14-14-3 record since the start of February, whereas the latter produced a spectacular midseason turnaround and finished the year on a 23-6-4 hot streak.
Nevertheless, the series felt evenly matched because Winnipeg boasted a stronger cast of forwards who could explode at any moment. With Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kevin Hayes on the roster, head coach Paul Maurice had more firepower at his disposal than counterpart Craig Berube. The Jets also ice a terrific fourth line comprised of Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev. In theory, that advantage up front should have helped the Jets mitigate their occasional slip-ups — at least in the first round.
Since Berube has the Blues playing stingy and fundamentally sound hockey, this was never going to be a high-flying series. As such, the Jets needed their top guns to become true difference-makers once more.
Ultimately, they never quite got out of second gear.
Despite Dustin Byfuglien’s best efforts (8 points in 6 games) as well as decent showings from Scheifele (5 points in 6 games) and Connor (5 points in 6 games), the Jets as whole couldn’t flip the switch. They had cut it too close and paid for it dearly against an opponent that was riding high on its late-season dominance.
Losing to the Blues isn’t the most damning outcome imaginable. St. Louis is a solid squad whose record from February onward trailed only the Tampa Bay Lightning’s. In his first year with the Blues, Ryan O’Reilly has made a massive three-zone impact and should win the Selke Trophy. His skill set has paired nicely with Vladimir Tarasenko’s soft hands and clinical finish to afford the team a legitimate top line. Meanwhile, the back end is long, rangy and moves the puck competently. Finally, there’s Jordan Binnington. The 25-year-old netminder got his first real taste of NHL action in January and his scintillating performances (1.89 GAA, 92.7 SV% in the regular season) never gave Berube a reason to hand the reins back to previous starter Jake Allen (2.83 GAA, 90.5 SV%).
From Winnipeg’s standpoint, the biggest concern is that it failed to do itself justice. It managed to keep things relatively close with St. Louis on the strength of pure talent, but it clearly had so much more to give. There was no attention to detail. There was no united front. There was no collective drive that would allow them to become greater than their shiny parts.
They couldn’t even get up for an elimination game. With their season on the line in Game 6, the Jets were outshot 27-6 through two periods. A late push yielded a more flattering 3-2 final score, but its effort on Saturday night was pitiful.
To be fair, that isn’t how the entire matchup played out.
Winnipeg corrected some of the issues that led to bottom-of-the-barrel performances after the trade deadline, as it owned 49.8% of the shot attempts (10th), 51.7% of the scoring chances (6th) and 52.4% of the goals scored (7th) at 5-on-5 against the Blues. Those numbers are perfectly acceptable, but in the spring, timing is everything.
Seeing as the level of competition is higher, blowouts are few and far between. Therefore, when you score goals becomes pivotal. If your opponent’s momentum is snowballing, can your offense stem the tide? Can it deliver the goods in the dying moments of a game? That separates the good from the great. Maurice’s team was actually superb in this department during the regular season, ranking third in the league in one-goal affairs. St. Louis came in 20th.
That trend was turned on its head in the first round. While both teams averaged just 2.67 goals per game, St. Louis won four of the six contests because it had been dialed into playoff-style hockey for months. The Blues have been hunkered down in the trenches since the middle of the season, scratching and clawing their way back into the picture with every ounce of energy they had in the tank. Meanwhile, the Jets were on cruise control. That contrast swung the balance in St. Louis’ favor — it was markedly more prepared to win tight games.
The story was no different between the pipes. Connor Hellebyuck (2.67 GAA, 91.3 SV%) held his own against Binnington (2.63 GAA, 90.8 SV%) overall, but it was the rookie who provided the game-defining stops. Hellebuyck, for his part, just couldn’t stand tall when it mattered most.
In the end, that sealed Winnipeg’s fate. The Jets weren’t outclassed by the Blues. They failed to come through in crunch time. Across the board, they stumbled when they needed to soar.
Scheifele and Wheeler couldn’t sustain any flashes of offense for longer than a period or two. Outside of a strong net drive in Game 5, trade deadline pickup Kevin Hayes was borderline invisible. Top pairing Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba (47.9 CF%, 47.6 SCF%, 25.0 GF%) managed the puck poorly and routinely chased the Blues rather than maintaining a stout defensive posture. Staying true to his extreme streakiness, Laine vanished after scoring in the first three games of the series. Speed demon Ehlers went pointless and has now failed to register a goal in 21 career postseason games. Mathieu Perreault seemed more concerned with taking minor penalties than helping his team out.
Maybe it’s a coaching issue. This roster should not underachieve to this degree, and Maurice looked like he had no answers when his men required them. There were no significant adjustments, no attempts to put his weapons in a better position to succeed. They kept going back to same well, but it had dried up months ago.
Of course, St. Louis deserves praise for its performances. Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko are stellar blueliners who use their reach and mobility to smother the opposition. O’Reilly’s two-way instincts make life difficult for anyone he faces. With his dizzying pace and endless work ethic, Jaden Schwartz was a thorn in Winnipeg’s side in the final two contests. Veterans Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak and David Perron offered solid contributions too.
It’s no shocker that the Blues ousted the Jets. They’re well coached and feature a nice blend of youth and experience. The real surprise is how consistently helpless Winnipeg appeared in high-leverage situations: Every single one of St. Louis’ wins was decided by a single goal.
Whether it boils down to coaching, the core of the locker room, complacency setting in over the long grind of a regular season or all of the above, the Jets simply couldn’t rise to the occasion when the games were up for grabs.