It's not too often that there is some uncertainty in how two Central Division opponents will match up against each other. But heading into the first Stanley Cup Playoffs meeting between the Winnipeg Jets and the St. Louis Blues, that's exactly what exists.
The two clubs played four games against each other this season, with the Jets winning three of them. However, all four of those meetings occurred prior to the three-day holiday break in December of 2018.
When the final day of 2018 had concluded, the Jets had a record of 25-12-2, the third best mark in the NHL. The Blues were 15-18-4, tied with the Ottawa Senators for last in the league.
But since then, the Blues have been on a tear, going 30-10-5 from Jan. 1 until the end of the regular season. No team - not even the Presidents' Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning - had a better record.
"You look statistically in the back half, they're an elite team in the NHL," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "We've never played that team. We played them in 2018 and they were a different team."
The Jets outscored the Blues 18-10 in the four meetings. Captain Blake Wheeler had two of those 18 goals and five total points against the Blues this season.
"We know we've got our work cut out for us. At this time of year, regardless of who you're playing, it's going to be really tough," said Wheeler. "We have a lot of excitement about what's going to be a great series."
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HOME ICE ADVANTAGE
Every one of those wins over the Blues (as well as the 47 total wins the Jets had in the 2018-19 regular season) proved to be important. Both teams finished with 99 points, but the Jets earned home ice advantage in the series thanks to their 45 regulation and overtime wins compared to St. Louis' 42.
The 25-12-4 record the Jets have at Bell MTS Place is the sixth best in the league. Home ice isn't always indicative of who will win the series (Nashville had home ice in the Second Round during the 2018 postseason and lost to the Jets, who then had home ice in the Western Conference Final before falling to Vegas), but it does offer the Jets a chance to get some momentum early.
"We have to fill up those streets in Winnipeg again," said Wheeler with a grin, referencing the memorable street parties of last spring and how they added to the whiteout inside the arena.
"We saw what our fan base is capable of, so that's what we're going to expect this year. The biggest challenge is getting off to a good start, getting on a roll, get confidence in your room," said Wheeler. "If we're able to do that, anything is possible. We have to start from scratch again, our opponent is playing really well. It should be a hell of a series."
The series will feature two teams that finished in the top half of road wins this season. At 22-18-1, the Jets set a new franchise record for wins away from Winnipeg, while the Blues were the NHL's eighth best road team with a record of 21-13-7.
Away from Scottrade Center, the Blues were one of three teams to allow less than 100 goals against with 98 (tied with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames).
BINNINGTON AND THE BLUES
In total, the Blues allowed 220 goals against this season, the fifth fewest in the NHL.
A big part of that has been the play of goaltender Jordan Binnington, who has a 24-5-1 record in his rookie season. Since making his debut on Jan. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, Binnington has posted a 0.927 save percentage and a 1.89 goals against average.
"He gave them maybe confidence at a time that they didn't have it," said Maurice. "But now, it's not a goalie show there. He's been good, but he's not the driver."
Maurice was quick to point out that the Blues have a number of other threats outside the crease. In terms of even strength play since Jan.1, the Blues have a 53.14 per cent shot attempt differential, the seventh best in the NHL. Defensively, they've been just as good, allowing only 333 high-danger chances, tied with the San Jose Sharks for the second fewest in the league.
Those stats back up the fact that the Blues are much more than just Binnington.
"He's not breaking the puck out, he's not working the power play, he's not doing any of those. But when your goaltender comes in and he stops the puck, you build confidence from that," said Maurice. "They play hard, they play fast."
FULL SERIES SCHEDULE
ALL SYSTEMS GO
Playing fast is something the Jets have focused on all season. It's the foundation of their game both offensively and defensively.
On the offensive side, the Jets scored 270 times in 2018-19, putting them seventh in the league. A total of 10 players hit double-digits in the goal column, led by Scheifele's career-high 38.
Kyle Connor had the second most goals at 34, while Patrik Laine hit the 30-goal mark for the third time in his three-year career.
Of course, Laine had a memorable outing against the Blues this season, scoring five goals in an 8-4 win on Nov. 24. In total, he had six goals and seven points in four meetings with St. Louis.
"I think we have four lines that can be effective," said Wheeler. "When we can do that and keep short shifts, get everyone involved in the game, we're able to play at a real high speed. That's when we're at our best.
"Continuing to buy into that is going to give us a chance to have some success going into the playoffs."
That offensive success continued on the power play, as the Jets finished fourth in the NHL in that category, converting on 24.8 per cent of their opportunities. In four meetings with the Blues, the Jets went 3-for-18 on the man advantage
The Blues also finished in the top 10 of that category at 21.1 per cent. In addition, the Blues scored three power play goals on 13 chances against the Jets this season.
Perhaps it's fitting that two teams that needed a tiebreaker to determine who earned home ice are so close in many statistical categories. In Maurice's mind, that's what the Central Division has been like all season.
"Your door prize for finishing first (in the Central) is you get the Dallas Stars and we went 1-3-0 against them," said Maurice. "It's going to be an absolute grinder, maybe even more so than last year the way those teams, those wild card teams, ended up playing."
This will be the third time the Jets have made the postseason since relocating to Winnipeg in 2011 and the first time they've earned a spot in consecutive seasons.
"It's something you can't take for granted. It's not an easy thing to do in this league," said Wheeler. "You learn to appreciate these opportunities a little bit more."
JETS INJURY NOTES
At season's end, the Jets had three players nearing a return from injury.
Josh Morrissey shed his no-contact jersey at the final morning skate of the regular season in Arizona. He's been out since Feb. 24 with an upper-body injury, but could be ready to return when the series against the Blues begins on Wednesday night.
"He's back on full contact and he'll get some practices in," Maurice said with the Jets scheduled to skate on Monday and Tuesday. "As with all injured players we'll wait until that day to make sure he gets to it, but we expect him to."
Laurent Brossoit is also expected to be ready for action at the start of the series. He's been nursing a lower-body injury since Mar. 21.
Brandon Tanev missed the final two games of the season-ending four-game road trip with an upper-body injury and a further update on his status is expected on Monday.