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The Winnipeg Jets’ slide to end the season has put them in a tougher-than-expected position to start the playoffs, up against the surging St. Louis Blues in the first round. A victory over Arizona in Saturday’s final game of the regular season at least secured home-ice advantage, but this is surely not the matchup the Jets wanted.
What do the Jets need to focus on in order to dispose of the Blues and move forward? We broke down the Jets’ ranks across the league in a variety of statistics near the end of the regular season, so let’s take the same approach and compare them directly with the Blues; we’ll start with their play with the puck.
The first thing is that they don’t turn it over. No team turns the puck over less often in the defensive or neutral zones; they’re remarkably efficient with it in both zones, providing puck carriers with layers of support if they’re in a tough spot, and passing options at all times.
This means the Blues are incredibly difficult to force into mistakes by applying aggressive checking schemes, and while they’re not quite as strong at retaining the puck in the offensive zone, ranking 11th best in the league there isn’t bad.
The heavily regimented structure the Blues play also means they’re often in position to capitalize on mistakes made by their opponents, leading to tons of odd-man rushes.
Inside the offensive zone, the Blues are one of the league’s most dangerous teams — producing the eighth-most scoring chances at five-on-five, but more importantly the second-most completed passes to the slot, fifth-most chances off the cycle and fourth-most chances off the forecheck.
They don’t get particularly close to the net, but they do have a plethora of decent to high-quality shooting options to compensate for that.
The one area where the Jets struggle with the puck is in turning their strong transition play out of the defensive zone into controlled entries and chances off the rush. The Blues are prone to just rimming the puck around the boards and engaging in battles to try to win it back instead of attempting to break through opposing defences, so if the Jets are able to handle their forecheck, it could turn the tide in the series.
Without the puck, things can look a little dire for the Jets.
This season the Jets’ vaunted defensive coverage of 2017-18 just hasn’t been there, and the Blues are an incredibly stifling team at even-strength, allowing the second-fewest high-danger chances and completed slot passes in the NHL. You didn’t think Jordan Binnington had truly saved their season, did you? Jake Allen has had his struggles, but the Blues have been an incredible defensive team since the start of the season and only improved down the stretch.
Similar to their play with the puck, cycle chances and forecheck chances are controlled tightly by the Blues’ in-zone defensive scheme and breakout structure, but there’s an area of weakness here, a weak link in the chain.
Just like the Blues struggle in gaining the offensive zone with control, they struggle defending their own blue line, as well. Their defensive-zone defence is spectacular, but their neutral-zone defence is weak. Twenty-seven teams in the NHL were able to force dump-ins more often than the Blues were this year, 26 were able to prevent passes off the rush more effectively and 13 were able to keep scoring chances off the rush down more effectively.
Combine those areas of weakness with the Blues’ tendency to get beat one-on-one with dekes — opponents had the second-highest success rate attempting dekes against the Blues of any team in the league — and you have a team that could be susceptible to a highly talented, quick-strike offence.
For the Jets of last season, only the deking vulnerability would really matter, but this year, with the addition of Kevin Hayes, they could theoretically keep him, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers on three separate lines and have a three-pronged rush attack strategy that could overwhelm the Blues’ inexperienced — or in the case of Jake Allen — shaky goaltending.
Hayes, in particular, has been red-hot at generating chances off the rush since the Jets acquired him, and while Winnipeg’s season-long numbers off the rush aren’t great, they’re much more dangerous since the trade deadline in that area, and they’re the sixth-best team in the league at completing offensive-zone dekes.
Those three players are likely the key to the offence in this series, at least at five-on-five, but more importantly, the Jets’ defenders are going to have to find a way to shrug off forechecks much more successfully than they did during the season; the Jets’ allowed the fifth-most chances against off the forecheck in the league, and the Blues’ forecheck is relentless.
Josh Morrissey’s return to the lineup is going to be a big factor there, as he and Jacob Trouba will likely be tasked with defending against the Vladimir Tarasenko line.
Despite having home ice, I don’t think the Jets are favourites in this series, but the Blues are exploitable with smart strategy as long as the Jets can find their defensive game, or if Connor Hellebuyck can perform at a significantly higher level.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.