A year ago, the Winnipeg Jets stormed into the playoffs with the swagger of a team that won 11 of its last 12 regular-season games and wound up steam-rolling their way into the 2018 Western Conference final.
The Jets are a very different team this April. Winnipeg effectively stumbled into the 2019 post-season, winning only three of their last nine regular-season games while blowing a chance at clinching their first division title since the NHL returned to the Manitoba capital.
The Jets, who finished second to the Nashville Predators in the NHL’s Central Division, open the first round of the playoffs at home on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues.
Both the Jets and the Blues finished the 2018-19 season with 99 points. But the two teams trended in opposite directions over the latter part of the season.
Here’s how Winnipeg and St. Louis match up — this year and over the course of their histories.
The Blues are singing a different tune
Winnipeg and St. Louis met four times this season, with the Jets winning three out of four games, including a memorable November match that saw winger Patrik Laine score five goals — which turned out to be one-sixth of his entire output in 2018-19.
The Jets’ apparent mastery over St. Louis means very little right now, as all three Winnipeg victories transpired in the fall, when the Blues stank up the NHL and coach Mike Yeo lost his job.
Effectively, there have been two different versions of the St. Louis Blues this year. Prior to New Year’s Day, the club won 15 games, lost 18 and snagged four loser points in overtime or shootout losses. After that, St. Louis went 30-10-5, climbing out of the NHL basement and into third place in the Central Division.
Interim coach Craig Berube deserves some credit. So does goalie Jordan Binnington, whose five shutouts and sparkling goals-against average make him a candidate for the Calder trophy, handed out to the NHL’s rookie of the year.
But the entire St. Louis club is playing so well, the stats nerds at Moneypuck.com — the same people who accurately predicted a long playoff run for the Winnipeg Jets last season — give St. Louis a whopping 62 per cent chance of knocking off the Jets in the first round.
This is mainly because Winnipeg has been a mediocre-to-lousy hockey team for the past few months. The Jets have barely played .500 hockey since the new year, boast worse possession stats than the cast of Evil Dead and developed a nasty habit of blowing third-period leads, including a late-season loss to the New York Islanders that — in retrospect — cost Winnipeg first place in the Central.
Of course, anything can happen in the playoffs. As Jets’ coach Paul Maurice told reporters this weekend, “we’re zero and zero in this series.”
While that’s obviously true, there’s no denying the Jets are underdogs in the first round, even though Winnipeg owns home-ice advantage.
A rematch 37 years in the making
This week’s series marks the second time a Winnipeg NHL team has faced the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs.
In 1982, the original Jets finished second in the Norris Division and won the right to host the third-place Blues in a best-of-five series.
That version of the Jets set an NHL record by making a 48-point improvement over the previous season, thanks in no small part to a revamped lineup that included rookie centres Dale Hawerchuk and Thomas Steen.
The Jets could not contend against a more experienced St. Louis team, which defeated the Jets three games to one. Winnipeg could not control Bernie Federko, Joe Mullen and Brian Sutter of the Blues, who scored a combined 32 points in that series.
Only one current Jet was alive when this took place. Forward Matt Hendricks was a 10-month-old baby when St. Louis blew away the Jets 8-2 in the fourth and final game of the series.
No Stanley for old clubs
The Jets and Blues have something ignominious in common: Neither club has ever won a Stanley Cup, in any incarnation.
The original Winnipeg Jets never made it past the second round of the NHL playoffs. The current Jets went to the third round and came within seven wins last year, but have yet to experience a Stanley Cup final.
St. Louis owns a much more dramatic futility streak: The Blues are the oldest NHL club without a Stanley Cup victory.
St. Louis entered the NHL in 1967-68 and went to the Stanley Cup final every spring during their first three seasons in the league. But they haven’t been back to the final since.
This futility streak, which now stands at 50 years and counting, is equal to that of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who last won the Cup in 1967.
While it’s safe to say fans in Winnipeg and St. Louis have both suffered for decades, Missouri fans have had the blues for a lot longer.