The Winnipeg Jets host the St. Louis Blues tonight for the first of three matchups this season.
Puck drop is at 7:45 CT, a weird time due to the NHL’s “Frozen Frenzy”, where all 16 teams play with scattering start times across the league.
The Jets are coming off of a key victory, bringing their record up to 2-3-0.
St. Louis, meanwhile, have played a light schedule of late, playing just four games through the first twelve days of the season.
They come to Winnipeg with a 2-1-1 record, but with puzzling underlying metrics and stats, though they’ve allowed two goals or less in three of their four games.
Surprisingly, it’s the Jets’ first Central Division opponent of this young season. An oddity I noticed too is that Winnipeg will play St. Louis and Colorado three times, but every other Central team four times.
Connor Hellebuyck needs to outplay Jordan Binnington tonight
It’s easy to say one of the best goaltenders in the world needs to perform well, but unlike the Blues, who have played stingy defense so far, the Jets have a poor defensive record early on.
It’s no surprise that the Jets found the W last Saturday in Edmonton when they allowed less than four goals for the first time all season. Hellebuyck was the steadying force in that, swallowing up shots all night after Winnipeg found themselves behind 2-0 early.
St. Louis has yet to score on the power play, and they’ll be feeling that pressure. Their power play appears to be struggling with the absence of Pavel Buchnevich, given that he is one of their primary facilitators along the right half wall.
The Jets’ penalty kill will have a chance to move closer to last season’s form, where they were 7th best in the league. So far they’re 24th in the league, with a 71.4% kill rate.
Special teams will be important. Fifty percent of St. Louis’ games this year have 1-1 draws decided by a shootout. They’re playing tight, and Winnipeg will need to be patient and wear them down over time.
I’ll take Connor Hellebuyck over Jordan Binnington any day of the week. If the Jets can keep an uninspired Blues offence to two goals or less, I trust Winnipeg’s depth to win the possession battle and find ways to score goals.
Managing the neutral zone and avoiding turnovers will be critical
The Blues enter this young season with horrible possession metrics, controlling just 39.8% of shot attempts at 5 on 5 so far, last in the league. That means their opponents are attempting a full 50% more shots than they are.
I interpret that as a team that is opportunistic on the rush, but struggling to cycle and string together a few shifts in a row of offensive zone time.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, has been thriving on the forecheck and the cycle, and their ability to roll out four quality lines should overpower St. Louis. The Jets are 9th in the league when it comes to shot attempt percentage, with 53.1%.
That’s where it will be critical for the Jets to avoid sloppy, undisciplined play in the neutral zone. The Blues are concerning on the rush, and so far, that’s about it.
They have three players I’d consider true threats: Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, and Jakub Vrana.
All of them do their best work off the rush and in transition.
Vrana has been uneven since being moved from Washington to Detroit, and eventually finding his way to St. Louis after entering the NHL’s player assistance program. But his talent is undeniable, and he had 10 goals in 20 games for the Blues last year.
Kyrou, meanwhile, is a powerful and speedy winger. He leaves a lot on the table defensively, but he is capable of doing damage in mere seconds, and is dangerous on the rush, a transitioning talent not too far from our own Nikolaj Ehlers.
Thomas is their version of Scheifele, though he doesn’t have the shooting capability. But he’ll play a cerebral east west game, find lanes, and create chances. If he’s the one with the puck on a 3-on-2, you can trust he’ll find the right pass.
Manage the neutral zone, limit those three players’ odd man and transitional opportunities, trust Hellebuyck to make timely saves, and Winnipeg should leave the Canada Life Centre with two points.