August 17, 2019

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Instant rivalry

Jets vs. Blues will be a tough series after St. Louis' remarkable resurgence

They've shared space in the Central Division for the past six seasons, yet on the surface there appears to be no obvious rancour, no boiling rivalry, between the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues.

These teams have yet to meet in the post-season since the Jets' return to the NHL in 2011. There's no major conflict borne of past playoff battles, such as the dislike that developed between the Jets and the Nashville Predators.

They certainly aren't linked geographically, like the Jets and the Minnesota Wild. Winnipeg fans don't regularly head down to Missouri, to Enterprise Center, to watch the teams collide, while fans of Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen generally don't come north to flash their Blues attire at Bell MTS Place.

The first-round NHL playoff series, which begins Wednesday in downtown Winnipeg, shapes up to be barely more than playground pushing match between a couple of classmates that rarely exchange more than pleasantries in the hallway, right?

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They've shared space in the Central Division for the past six seasons, yet on the surface there appears to be no obvious rancour, no boiling rivalry, between the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues.

These teams have yet to meet in the post-season since the Jets' return to the NHL in 2011. There's no major conflict borne of past playoff battles, such as the dislike that developed between the Jets and the Nashville Predators.

Tale of the tape

Ivan Barbashev loses the puck to the Jets' Mason Appleton in a game at Bell MTS Place in December. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Ivan Barbashev loses the puck to the Jets' Mason Appleton in a game at Bell MTS Place in December. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Here's how the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues compare heading into Wednesday's Game 1.

WINS: Winnipeg 47 (T-6th), St. Louis 45 (12th)

GOALS FOR: Winnipeg: 270 (7th), St. Louis 244 (15th) (Note: Doesn’t include shootout goals)

GOALS AGAINST: Winnipeg 243 (15th), St. Louis 220 (T-5th)

POWER PLAY: Winnipeg 24.8% (4th), St. Louis 21.1% (10th)

PENALTY KILL: Winnipeg 79.2% (T-22nd), St. Louis 81.5% (9th)

SHOTS FOR PER GAME: Winnipeg 31.2 (19th). St. Louis 31.8 (15th)

SHOTS AGAINST PER GAME: 33.4 (27th), St. Louis 28.6 (4th)

FACEOFFS: Winnipeg 50.7% (T-10th), St. Louis 51.4 (6th)

CORSI FOR: (5-on-5): Winnipeg 48.97 (19th), St. Louis 51.50 (10th) – according to Natural Stat Trick

CORSIS FOR (All situations): Winnipeg 48.73 (21st), St. Louis 51.70 (9th) – according to Natural Stat Trick

They certainly aren't linked geographically, like the Jets and the Minnesota Wild. Winnipeg fans don't regularly head down to Missouri, to Enterprise Center, to watch the teams collide, while fans of Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen generally don't come north to flash their Blues attire at Bell MTS Place.

The first-round NHL playoff series, which begins Wednesday in downtown Winnipeg, shapes up to be barely more than playground pushing match between a couple of classmates that rarely exchange more than pleasantries in the hallway, right?

Don't buy that for a minute, says Jets captain Blake Wheeler.

"These guys had some really strong teams while we weren't making the playoffs those first few years. Every game seemed to be a battle, every game seemed like it came down to a goal here or there," Wheeler said Monday. "I bet if you look since we came back to Winnipeg, it's almost split down the middle 50-50, always really tough matchups. It's going to be a really tough series."

He's not just spewing platitudes.

The squads have actually spent a fair bit of on-ice time together. Since the 2011-12 season the teams have met 28 times, and the Jets are 14-11-3, including a 3-1-0 record during the '18-19 regular season.

Blake Wheeler squares off against young Blues defenceman Vince Dunn Nov. 24. Dunn is a key piece in the Blues' resurgence, which saw them go from being a contender for a top draft pick to a contender for the top trophy. JEFF ROBERSON / THE ASSOCIATE PRESS FILES</p>

Blake Wheeler squares off against young Blues defenceman Vince Dunn Nov. 24. Dunn is a key piece in the Blues' resurgence, which saw them go from being a contender for a top draft pick to a contender for the top trophy. JEFF ROBERSON / THE ASSOCIATE PRESS FILES

The Jets (47-30-5) and Blues (45-28-9) each finished with 99 points, however, the Jets earned second place in the Central and home-ice advantage based on three more combined regulation/overtime victories.

They’ll renew acquaintances with plenty on the line in a best-of-seven series. Game 1 is set for 7 p.m.

Singing the Blues' praises

These clubs thought they knew each other well by early December — but might have difficulties picking each other out of a lineup now. All three of the Jets’ victories over the Blues were registered by Nov. 25, and then St. Louis finally answered back with a 1-0 win Dec. 7.

But the Blues are a shadow of their former mediocre selves. Indeed, it looked like the squad was destined for a high pick in this summer’s NHL Draft at the time when the team was just 7-9-3 out of the gate and head coach Mike Yeo was handed a pink slip.

Enter interim bench boss Craig Berube, who transformed the team to a legitimate Cup contender. The team went 38-19-6 with the former NHL tough guy at the helm, including a sensational franchise-record 11-game winning streak in January/February.

The Jets forward group won’t have unlimited air space in the Blues defensive zone, with the soundness of veterans Alex Pietrangelo, Robert Bortuzzo and Colton Parayko, and talented youngster Vince Dunn, on the back end.

Blues netminder Jordan Binnington has been a goaltending phenom since he was called up to help stabilize a shaky season in net. FRANK FRANKLIN II / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES</p>

Blues netminder Jordan Binnington has been a goaltending phenom since he was called up to help stabilize a shaky season in net. FRANK FRANKLIN II / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Rookie netminder Jordan Binnington has been a revelation for St. Louis since the club turned to him in early January. He finished 24-5-1 in his 30 starts, with five shutouts, a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage.

On the offensive, centre Ryan O'Reilly, with wingers Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn have been the drivers for St. Louis. O’Reilly, picked up in a trade with Buffalo last summer, tied a career high with 28 goals and finished with a club-leading 77 points, Tarasenko recorded his fifth-straight 30-goal campaign, while Schenn had 17 goals and 54 points.

If the top trio doesn't kill you, the second line of Jaden Schwartz, Oskar Sundqvist and David Perron has the weaponry to cause damage, too.

What have they done lately?

On one hand, it would appear the Jets and Blues are two ships passing each other in the night.

After all, Winnipeg occupied top spot in the Central Division and let it slip from its grip in the final weeks of the season, thanks largely to winning just two of the last seven games (2-4-1) and playing an extended period of just mediocre and certainly inconsistent hockey.

The Blues, meanwhile, had to fight and claw their way back from the NHL basement to not only make the playoffs, but nearly pass the Jets and Predators to claim the top spot. It was an incredible resurgence.

So does that make the Jets the underdogs here? Vegas oddsmakers certainly think so, with the Blues opening as slight favourites.

Jacob Trouba celebrates after scoring the winning goal in Winnipeg Oct. 22 against the Blues. The Jets expect a vastly different St. Louis team than the one that lost the season series 3-1. TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p>

Jacob Trouba celebrates after scoring the winning goal in Winnipeg Oct. 22 against the Blues. The Jets expect a vastly different St. Louis team than the one that lost the season series 3-1. TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

"I don't this anybody in here is too worried," defenceman Jacob Trouba said following Monday’s practice at Bell MTS Iceplex. "Would you rather have a good season and clinch a few games ago, or play right to the end and clinch and feel better about yourself, or play hard and win all games at the end of the year and be out of the playoffs, like we've done before.

"We're feeling pretty good with the spot we're in. It's just time to go out there and perform now. We've shown the levels we can play at. So we know it's in here.

"This is what we've been waiting for all year. That's kind of the difference. Last year we were fighting, fighting. And this year we were pretty confident we were going to be in the playoffs and we want to be in this role. It's a little bit of a change for us. But that's obviously a good thing, if you're that confident you're going to be there all year. Here we are. So it's time to perform."

Perhaps it was a sign St. Louis was on the right path when they came into Winnipeg in early December and won 1-0.

"Over the last few months now, really since Christmas, even when we played them and they beat us 1-0 at home, they’re a tough defensive team, they’re physical, they obviously have a deep group up front," said defenceman Josh Morrissey. "They play hard, you have to work for every inch of ice you get. It’s going to be a tough series but we’re excited for it. Obviously we haven’t seen St. Louis in a while but we’ll prepare over the next couple days and be ready to go."

'Obviously, they figured out something in their game to turn their season around. We’ll have to look at some different areas. We’ll definitely be prepared going into Game 1, but primarily our focus is on our game' - Jets captain Blake Wheeler

Of course, Winnipeg and St. Louis now sport identical 0-0-0 records. The only thing that really matters is which team plays better starting now.

"Lot of the same faces. Obviously, they figured out something in their game to turn their season around. We’ll have to look at some different areas. We’ll definitely be prepared going into Game 1, but primarily our focus is on our game," said Wheeler.

Let's take you back

Oct. 4: Jets 5 Blues 1 at Enterprise Center

Connor Hellebuyck made 41 saves, and three goals in just 1:44 of the third period broke open a close game as the Jets got their regular-season started in style.

"He was unreal. It was just ridiculous just watching from the bench, those saves he made. He was really good. I think he was easily the best player on the ice," Patrik Laine said of his goaltender.

Laine score his team’s first goal of the campaign, while Adam Lowry, Kyle Connor, Wheeler and Brandon Tanev also scored. Kristian Vesalainen made his NHL debut, registering an assist.

"There were some things about the game that I really liked, a bunch of stuff that we're really going to need to get better at, but it's exactly what we expected this year to be like," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.

Oct. 22: Jets 5, Blues 4 (OT) at Bell MTS Place

Bryan Little tied the game with just 1:40 left in the third period and then Trouba capped off a come-from-behind victory with the overtime winner. The Jets actually trailed 3-1 after 40 minutes, and this is one of just six games (in 30 tries) where they erased a deficit entering the final frame and came away with a victory.

Mark Scheifele had a big offensive night with two goals and two assists.

"That third period, we pretty much said, 'Screw it. Let's have fun and battle and work for each other here.' It turned out. It worked for us. It just shows that any game is in reach if you play the right way. That third period we played Winnipeg Jets hockey. We were on the puck, we were working hard. We were battling for each other. That's how you win games in this league," said Scheifele.

There was also some high emotion after Brandon Tanev was kicked out of the game for a dangerous hit on O’Reilly.

Nov. 24: Jets 8 Blues 4 at Enterprise Center

Patrik Laine’s historic night stole the show, as the Finnish sniper scored five times to lead his team to a wild victory.

"I felt like every time I touched the puck it kind of went in, somehow. I guess it was just one of those nights," said Laine, who scored 11 games on the four-game road trip.

Incredibly, that week-long stretch would represent more than 33% of the 30 goals he would score all season. Oh, how he’d love to go back in time.

"Just get the puck to Patty, right? He was feeling it. I think it's pretty special, with that shot he has. It's fun to watch out there," said Kyle Connor, who had four assists.

Dec. 7: Blues 1 Jets 0 at Bell MTS Place:

After scoring at will in their last meeting, the Jets couldn’t light the lamp even once. Blues goalie Jake Allen had himself a night, stopping all 26 shots he faced. St. Louis also killed off six Winnipeg power plays on the night.

"Yeah, I'll be damned. We're going to throw a goose egg up every once in a while. It's our job, especially in a close game, to come through there (but) weren't able to do it," said Wheeler.

There was plenty of edge in this one, especially towards Laine. Jordan Nolan was penalized for an early elbow on him, and then Bortuzzo drew Laine into a four-minute roughing minor.

Blast from the past

Remember the last time Winnipeg and St. Louis met in the playoffs? Yes? Then you must be a lot older than Matt Hendricks.

It was April 1982, and the only current Jets player even alive when the Blues ousted the Jets 3-1 in a best-of-five Norris Division semi-final series was a 10-month-old Hendricks. The Jets were coming off an historic 1981-82 regular season (33-33-14), as NHL rookie-of-the-year Dale Hawerchuk and another first-year centre, Thomas Steen, sparked the squad to a 48-point improvement over the laughable’80-81 campaign (9-57-14).

Owning home-ice advantage, the Jets gained only a split at Winnipeg Arena and then fell twice to the Blues in St. Louis. The veteran forward line of centre Bernie Federko and wingers Brian Sutter and Joe Mullen ran roughshod over Winnipeg head coach Tom Watts’ team. Sutter fired seven goals in four games, while the trio combined for a remarkable 32 points.

Hawerchuk led Winnipeg with a goal and seven assists in the series, while Paul MacLean had three goals and Lucien DeBlois, Norm Dupont and Willy Lindstrom each had a pair.

Blues goalie Mike Liut started all four games, allowed 13 goals and posted a .907 save percentage. The netminding tandem of Doug Soetaert and Ed Staniowski, so key to the Jets massive improvement, played a pair of games each in the playoffs and combined on a .808 save percentage.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

mike.mcIntyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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History

Updated on Monday, April 8, 2019 at 7:39 PM CDT: Updates some of the number.

9:31 PM: Fixes multiple typos.

9:53 PM: Fixes typo.

April 9, 2019 at 10:08 AM: tweaks headline

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