Binnington faces his toughest test yet: Winning a playoff series as a rookie goaltender
The St. Louis Blues’ rookie goaltender will make his playoff debut against Hellebuyck and the high-powered Jets in Game 1 of their first-round series Wednesday night in Winnipeg. If Binnington can match what Hellebuyck did last year in his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blues could continue their surprising run after going from last in the NHL in January all the way to the postseason.
Binnington hasn’t taken time to reflect on his 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and league-leading 1.89 goals-against average since making his first start in January.
“It’s really been nonstop, and I’ve been enjoying it and working hard,” Binnington said. “You’ve got to be relentless at this level, so you don’t really have time to think.”
The Jets are and should be thinking a lot about Binnington, who’s as much of an unknown quantity as there is in these playoffs. The 25-year-old languished in the minors before St. Louis turned to him midseason almost by default with starter Jake Allen not at his best and backup Chad Johnson struggling so much he was put on waivers.
The Blues’ absurd turnaround from last place on Jan. 3 to third in the Central Division had a lot to do with Craig Berube replacing Mike Yeo as coach, but it also coincided with Binnington stepping into the crease.
“Binner came up and won some games and played really well and we got on a streak and never really looked back,” veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said.
Hellebuyck hasn’t been quite as sharp this season after he backstopped the Jets to the Western Conference final a year ago with a .927 save percentage and 2.25 GAA in the first two rounds. Still, going that run should help him the second time around.
“One thing that you can’t substitute is experience,” Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “Once you go through something and you experience it, you have a mental template of how you need to act and what you liked about it, what you didn’t like about it. So now he’s got that experience.”
It’s not just Hellebuyck, either. Save for a handful of guys who were around for a first-round sweep at the hands of Anaheim in 2015, last year was the first chance for a lot of Jets players to get on the ice in the playoffs, including young guns Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.
“It’s still hockey,” Laine said. “It doesn’t matter if you have 10 Stanley Cups, you’ve still got to win. You’ve still got to play the game. So hopefully we know what to do in certain situations, but hopefully the experiences from last year are going to help us a little bit this year.”
Berube expects banged-up center Tyler Bozak and defenseman Colton Parayko to be able to go.
Winnipeg will be without forward Brandon Tanev for Game 1, coach Paul Maurice said, but should have top-four defenseman Josh Morrissey back after missing six weeks with an upper-body injury. The Jets played long stretches without Morrissey and top defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and still managed to finish second in the division.
“Obviously every team has nicks and bruises and injuries,” Cheveldayoff said. “You certainly would love to have your full complement of players. But I think the thing you look at the most is how have you sustained it? Obviously going into the playoffs here with the group that we have, they’ve scratched and clawed their way.”
When the Blues had a bad first couple of months of the season, center Ryan O’Reilly was still on his game and producing. Acquired from Buffalo in a trade last summer, O’Reilly has been exactly what St. Louis has needed and led the team with 77 points.
“He’s good on both ends of the ice, he’s very easy to play with, makes it easier on his linemates,” forward Brayden Schenn said. “He works hard at both ends of the ice, has good vision, good in the battles, good faceoff guy. There’s obviously a ton of elements to his game that make him good and a special player.”
O’Reilly won 56.9% of his faceoffs, good for eighth in the league, and the matchup against Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry — who ranked seventh — will be one to watch.
Like Berube, Maurice took over the Jets during the season, but that was back in 2013-14. Berube is an interim coach for the second time after replacing Peter Laviolette with Philadelphia three games into the 2013-14 season. He said he has approached St. Louis differently.
“It’s two totally different teams, to be honest with you,” Berube said.” When you take a team over, first and foremost you’ve got to manage your players and manage a locker room and things like that and there’s different scenarios on both teams. We play a different brand of hockey here than I did in Philly.”
That’s a very north-south brand of hockey that has fit the Blues well. And the biggest difference between Berube and Yeo is practice, where the new coach runs a tight ship, is quick to blow the whistle to stop drills and believes those habits translate to games.