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Best Bets: Look for multiple scuffling teams to bounce back Saturday

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon - The Canadian Press

The NHL season is long, so slumps are unavoidable. Good teams overcome them quickly, and great teams limit how many prolonged losing streaks they record. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, and Colorado Avalanche are enduring tough stretches, with the former two suffering multi-game losing streaks. This Saturday, I'm expecting better results.

Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Islanders

Saturday February 24 – 2:00 PM ET

Magic is enthralling because the audience allows the performer to use misdirection to create surprise and awe. In hockey, misdirection is more strategic. Focus here because we don’t want you to attack there.

As much as the Lightning and New York Islanders may try to conceal their defensive warts, all it takes is a pinprick to see what’s going on.

On Thursday, their game against St. Louis was controlled by the Islanders until a swift collapse early in the second period led to three quick, successive goals by the Blues. The Islanders completely neglected the weak side, lost their positioning, and looked disjointed. 

The Lightning’s defensive group is dearly missing Mikhail Sergachev for the long term, and Erik Cernak was out Thursday with an illness. The Lightning’s breakout, a season-long sore spot, has had an unfortunate hallmark of allowing goals shortly after surrendering the puck. Thursday’s contest versus the Washington Capitals wasn’t any different, with the Lightning forwards caught too far above the puck as their enfeebled defencemen were swallowed by the Washington forecheck. On Saturday, whose vulnerability will be less detrimental?

Tampa Bay had some encouraging moments Thursday in the offensive zone against the Capitals. They used motion above the circles to tie up Washington and to give their layers of forwards opportunities to position themselves for tips and traffic. The Lightning hope to create more of a forechecking and cycle initiative as a palliative to their defensive woes, and they have defencemen who can aid the forwards in spreading the opponent out and creating turnovers. There is reason to believe that with more offensive zone time Tampa Bay can open up the slot.

Together or apart, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are both so dynamic that each can push back their opponent’s defence and create off the rush. Against Washington, the Lightning’s defencemen made an effort to push the Capitals back with their center lane drive, and Tampa Bay would be wise to continue that tactic against the Islanders.

Before Roy, the Islanders were one of the worst in the NHL in expected goals against and high-danger chances against. His plan seems to keep the Islanders competitive by playing low-event games. The offence has nose-dived, but the defensive numbers have skyrocketed. Thursday was the ugly side of that equation. A few defensive breakdowns can’t be overcome when the team can’t find offence. And while their 5-on-5 defensive play has improved, the Islanders’ league-worst penalty kill hasn’t cooperated.

The Lightning can look sloppy and overmatched; they are too reliant on their best players with no margin for error. But head coach Jon Cooper guides the team to reliably respond against adversity.

With the Lightning’s league-best power play as a possible trump card and Tampa Bay fighting for their playoff lives, I see Tampa Bay winning on Saturday.

Pick: Lightning Moneyline -102

Toronto Maple Leafs at Colorado Avalanche

Saturday February 24 – 7:00 PM ET

I will raise my hand and tell you I did not initially see the Ridly Greig/Morgan Rielly incident as a season-changing event. But since then, the Toronto Maple Leafs have transformed into a Godzilla-style beast. 

Coach Sheldon Keefe’s moves have looked like high-level chess. So, kudos to T.J. Brodie for his 5-on-5 play. Cheers to Bobby McMann for the tear he’s been on. And a head nod to John Tavares for embracing his third-line role. But do I see this lasting? No, I don’t, even with the amazing goalscoring by Auston Matthews.

As far as the Colorado Avalanche are concerned: Since the All-Star Break, they have been sideways. They have won three of their last nine games. On Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings, backup goaltender Justus Annunen played well enough for Colorado to win, but the team sputtered in the second half.

The Red Wings had success on the forecheck. The Avs allowed too many odd-man rushes. Colorado couldn’t score on its power play. Before the break, the Avalanche were top five in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes. In their last nine games, they rank in the bottom five.

Ultimately, the Avalanche rely too heavily on Nathan Mackinnon and their top players, and when those players can’t buoy them, they crumble.

The Avs need to press their forecheck and slow this game down. The last thing they want to do is chase Toronto around in their own end, allowing the Maple Leafs to engineer plays into slot shots. That puts a premium on Colorado making smart passes and plays to extend offensive zone time. If Colorado can do a better job gapping up, and the forwards empower their defencemen to hold the lines with conscientious back-checking, the Avs can create turnovers and prey on a Maple Leafs’ rush defence that has been known to struggle defending the rush.

Fading Matthews when he is a human fireball is a little discomforting. But Toronto has won six straight (its previous best winning streak this season was four) and Colorado has been dominant at home, boasting a 22-5-0 record.

During the first four games after the Break, MacKinnon was held to only one point, but he is heating up now, scoring off a curl into the slot against Detroit. Cale Makar is ice cold, having been held pointless in seven straight games. I think that changes on Saturday, as the big boys show up and Colorado grinds out a victory.

Pick: Avalanche Moneyline -126

Dallas Stars at Carolina Hurricanes

Saturday February 24 – 8:00 PM ET

The Dallas Stars feel like they have played well enough to win in multiple games during their current four-game losing streak. Thursday’s 4-1 loss against the Ottawa Senators was certainly not one of them though.

The Stars committed too many turnovers feeding Ottawa’s rush. The Senators stole the puck on the Stars’ breakout and feasted on the Dallas overload when they found Thomas Chabot on the weak side. Goaltender Jake Oettinger got pulled, and coach Peter DeBoer shook up the lines. The Stars finished with their third fewest shots on goal at 5-on-5 of any game this season. It was a forgettable offensive performance and an ugly effort.

Unfortunately, the Carolina Hurricanes are the last team you would want to play after a wretched offensive outcome. Carolina ranks first in the NHL in defending cycle chances and is second in slot passes allowed. The Hurricanes have the puck in the offensive zone a lot, ranking first in offensive zone possession time and in the least amount of defensive zone time. Carolina has won four straight and just shut out the Florida Panthers, who had a six-game win streak entering Thursday night.

But Carolina is not indomitable. The Hurricanes are awfully hard to beat when maintaining their structure in their own end. But if an opponent can catch them on the rush, there is room and space to be found. 

Also, there is still some opportunity to be found on Carolina’s cycle. Beat the Hurricanes off the wall or behind the net and that man-on-man defence can be victimized.

The Stars’ goal against the Senators was a perfect blueprint. After Miro Heiskanen created an opportunity from the point, Jamie Benn shot the puck off the pad and, as the puck landed in the low slot, Thomas Harley and Joe Pavelski were there to swing at it.

The Hurricanes’ offence looked frisky against a stingy Florida Panthers team on Thursday. They created off the rush (like on the Sebastian Aho game-winner) and especially engaged their defencemen in transition. The Hurricanes are a headache to stop on the forecheck, and they had a few nice looks using their five-man rotation. The Stars cannot sell out by manufacturing offence while yielding on defence or they will be toast.

Carolina is awesome at home, but Dallas has been nearly as good on the road as at home. The underlying numbers agree: The Stars are top eight in expected goals and high-danger chances at 5-on-5 as a road team.

The Stars played poorly on Thursday, but they have been one of the best teams in the NHL this season because of their balance. They have one of the best offences in the NHL, very good special teams, and Oettinger, who is capable of playing like an elite goaltender. Adaptability-wise they are a chameleon. Dallas can dice you in transition or beat you with a hard, physical forecheck. Getting to bet on the Stars when they are down is a gift because this team is too good to struggle for long. I see Dallas getting the win on Saturday.

Pick: Stars Moneyline +108