By Lou Korac
The workload was short and crisp for the Blues on Tuesday. They’re ready to drop the puck Wednesday.
The Blues and Winnipeg Jets are set to begin their Western Conference first round series with Game 1 set for 7 p.m. at Bell MTS Place (FS-MW, NHL Network, KYKY 98.1-FM). Game 2 is also in Winnipeg Friday at 8:30 p.m. before the series shifts to Enterprise Center for Game 3 on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. and Game 4 Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
The Blues and Jets each finished with 99 points on the season, but Winnipeg gained home ice and finished second in the Central Division based on having more regulation/over time wins (ROW) during the regular season (45-42). Both the Blues (45-28-9) and Jets (47-30-5) finished one point behind Central Division champion Nashville.
“It’s fun games coming up,” said Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team with 33 goals and was second in points behind Ryan O’Reilly with 68. “When you clinch playoffs before the regular season is over, you’re still waiting for everything. It’s hardest time of the year but most important time too. I’m really excited for game tomorrow.
“We played them a lot in the last years. They are divisional opponent and we know how they play. They have a good team, a lot of skill. They play really hard and they’re physical team. It’s going to be a fun series. It’s going to be hard for both teams and we are ready for a battle.”
The Blues dropped three of four against the Jets this season, going 1-2-1, but haven’t faced them since Dec. 7 when the Blues were floundering near the bottom of the league standings. St. Louis was last in the NHL with 34 points as late as Jan. 3 with a 15-18-4 record but finished with the second-most points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning since Jan. 1, going 30-10-5 (65 points).
“I’m very excited. It’s a chance for the Stanley Cup,” said O’Reilly, who led the Blues with a career-high 77 points and 49 assists and tying a career-high with 28 goals. O’Reilly was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on July 1, 2018 for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson along with a 2019 first-round pick and 2021 second-round pick. O’Reilly will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14 with the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s the most important thing,” O’Reilly said. “It’s what you train for. I’m excited with this group. I’m confident we can get this done and starting tomorrow, you’ve got to take it one game at a time.
“It’s going to be a tough test. A very good team over there, but you know what, we’re a good team too. It’s going to be a heck of a series. I’m confident in our group. We’ve got a lot of pieces. If we show up and do things the right way, we give ourselves a good chance.”
The Jets are fully aware they haven’t seen the Blues at their best. During the time Winnipeg was off to a flying start at 25-12-2, 18 points ahead of the Blues on Jan. 3, the Jets finished 22-18-3 in 2019.
“What do you say in playoffs, you find a clean slate and start over,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “They know that, they’re going to come out fresh. They’ve had some injuries, guys are getting back. It’s probably part of the reason they were playing like that. We can’t look at it like that. We have to look at it as a team that was pretty much in first in our division he whole year. We expect a good game from them.
“We’re expecting to get a push from them, especially at home. They always play well in their building. I’ve never played there in the playoffs, but they’re going to use that crowd to their advantage. We’ll have to go in there and play well early and try to play our game and take away the momentum.”
The Blues make a return to the playoffs after missing out last season for the first time in seven years, and there are plenty of first-timers for the Blues (Jordan Binnington, Vince Dunn, Robert Thomas, Sammy Blais and Mackenzie MacEachern). Also, Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford have limited playoff experience.
“Even I get nervous sometimes too,” said Tarasenko, who has 32 points (22 goals, 10 assists) in 44 playoff games. “Even before games, not super nervous, but emotionally, the building where you play is nice, but the biggest advice is to just enjoy the time because last year, we miss the playoffs. You never know how it’s going to turn out. Just enjoy this chance to play against the best players in the world and try to win the hardest trophy too.”
The Blues have not advanced past the conference championship series since 1970, the last of three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final in their first three seasons in the NHL, but feel strongly and confident this group, which overcame longshot odds to reach the playoffs, can win in the toughest environments.
The Blues became the seventh team in league history to reach the playoffs after being last in the league at any point from Jan. 1 on.
“I think we can still piece a lot of things together throughout games,” Pietrangelo said. “Obviously when you look at the overall picture, we’ve played well. We’ve found ways to win. This time of year, everything’s under the microscope. We know we can tighten some things up.
“You get a taste of it, you want to get back in there. I heard Vladi say the same thing. You miss it. Ever since some of us made it to the conference finals (in 2016), we’ve been itching to get back there and take that next step. We’re just excited to be back in. The goal is to get in and play well and off we go. It’s an exciting time for us.”
Binnington, who set the Blues rookie record with 24 wins (24-5-1, 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage this season), will get the nod in goal to open and will oppose Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.
“He came up here and started winning and doing a good job, but the one thing that surprised me was he’s stayed really calm and cool through it all and I think real level-headed, which is great,” said Blues coach Craig Berube, who took over for Mike Yeo on Nov. 19. “Our whole team’s kind of fed off that. We’re just even-keeled and that’s a good way to be and he’s done a great job of staying in the moment and taking it game to game.”
The Jets counter with some highly dangerous weapons on offense, including leading point scorer and captain Blake Wheeler (91 points on 20 goals, 71 assists), Mark Scheifele (84 points on 38 goals, 46 assists), Kyle Connor (66 points on 34 goals, 32 assists) and Patrik Laine (50 points on 30 goals, 20 assists), who lit up the Blues on Nov. 24 with five goals in an 8-4 Jets win.
“We want to dictate the play as much as possible,” O’Reilly said. “Obviously they’re a good team, they’re going to make plays. We’ve got to take care of the puck and doing the right things, be hard to play against, shutting down their top line too, not give those guys any momentum, any confidence.”
The Blues, who used a franchise-record 11-game winning streak to propel them up the standings, had three defensemen this season reach double-digit goals for the first time (Pietrangelo with 13, Dunn with 12 and Colton Parayko with 10) and had 13 players reach 10 goals or more for the first time, are confident.
“I’m really excited for what we build here,” Tarasenko said. “I’m really excited how close and tight the group (is). We have high expectations from us.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports