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If Jets can’t beat Blues, playoffs won’t matter

Almost every road to post-season progress passes under Gateway Arch

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The Winnipeg Jets have an uphill battle to either outpace the Pacific Division teams for a wild card spot or catch the Dallas Stars for the last guaranteed spot in the Central Division.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/02/2020 (1093 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Jets have an uphill battle to either outpace the Pacific Division teams for a wild card spot or catch the Dallas Stars for the last guaranteed spot in the Central Division.

No matter which route proves most favourable, the road to crawling their way back into contention includes Saturday night’s game vs. the Western Conference leading St. Louis Blues, which is also a likely first-round matchup if the Jets do climb back into the playoff picture.

The reigning Stanley Cup champions and last season’s first-round opponents for the Jets have had a very different regular season than they experienced in 2018-19, where they bottomed out before storming back in the second half as the league’s hottest team entering the playoffs.

Dilip Vishwanat / The Associated Press Jets captain Blake Wheeler fights St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (left) and winger David Perron for the puck. It’s an uphill road to playoff success and it runs through St. Lou.

This season, the Blues have been at the top of the conference for most of the season, relying on strong goaltending from sophomore starter Jordan Binnington and backup Jake Allen. Binnington has struggled of late, but when accounting for the difficulty of shots faced, he has been among the league’s best this season.

The Jets can go head to head with the Blues as far as goaltending is concerned, but outside the crease, what kind of team are the Blues?

They have the reputation of being a lunch pail team; a hardworking, blue collar group that grinds teams into submission with a strong forecheck and winning battles in tight. Sometimes reputations don’t hold up to scrutiny though.

Surprisingly, the Blues don’t out-forecheck opponents at 5-vs-5 or in all situations. They do dump the puck in a lot on zone entries and they forecheck hard, so you can see why that reputation exists, but they don’t create a lot of offence through the forecheck compared to the rest of the league. They aren’t particularly excellent at defending forechecks either.

You may remember when I previewed the first-round series between the Jets and Blues last season, I mentioned that defending off the rush was the biggest weakness that the Blues had and that the Jet’s shift throughout the last month of the season to focus more on rush attacks might pay off. That focus was a large reason why the Jets made that series competitive after looking like they were circling the drain in the season’s second half.

This season the Blues haven’t changed much in that area — still giving up a high number of chances off the rush while not creating much on their own. That remains a very exploitable area against this team, provided you can beat Binnington regularly.

The Blues also don’t dominate teams from the inner slot. In fact they are much less efficient at defending that area than they were last year en route to winning the Stanley Cup, which is why Binnington’s expected save percentage of .911 may not seem so great but to date remains a solidly impressive number.

It’s a little bit surprising that a team whose identity is hard-nosed, tough hockey is being so drastically outplayed from the most important area on the ice, but there is a growing trend around the league this year to borrow some of what the Jets have been doing for a few seasons now.

If you’ve been paying attention to how the Jets have created their offence and structured their defence under Paul Maurice, you’ll know that the areas they flex most on opponents are in controlling passes to and through the slot, and shooting from the high slot area. Most passes to the slot are going to end up in the high slot simply because there’s more room to receive a pass there, and then turn it into a shot.

Snipers generally prefer shooting from that area since they have a bit more room to not only evade sticks and take the shot, but also more room to change the angle on the goaltender and pick their spot.

Where the Blues truly excel is getting passes into that area for their best shooters to take those shots, and they do that not by forcing mistakes down low with a grinding style of play, but by cycling the puck.

In the absence of Vladimir Tarasenko, who hasn’t been able to suit up for a game since October 24 after being sidelined with a shoulder injury that needed surgery to repair, the Blues have leaned heavily on David Perron, Jaden Schwartz, and Oskar Sundqvist to step it up as shooters off the cycle.

The Blues boast a deep and versatile forward group who all try to get in on the action, but those three are their scoring chance leaders and the players teams should be focused on taking shots away from. On the other side of the equation are Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn, who lead the team in slot passes and completed offensive zone passes overall.

Despite the Blues being at the top of the Western Conference, they don’t look quite as dominant as they were last season, really only exerting a ton of influence over one areas of the ice. If a team is capable of focusing on and breaking their cycle game, either at the pass point or the shooting point, without Tarasenko they’re not necessarily the offensive powerhouse you fear to match up against.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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