Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final
April 23rd will be remembered as the date when everything changed. It was Game 4 of the first-round series between the Florida Panthers and the Boston Bruins. Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t start the playoffs in net for the Panthers, but he came in relief in Game 3 in Florida’s 4-2 loss. Bobrovsky allowed one goal on nine shots in that game, and in his first start he foundered, allowing five goals on 30 shots.
Game 4’s poor performance could have been the end of a short-lived experiment for the 34-year-old Bobrovsky who was considered to be past his prime. But coach Paul Maurice didn’t backpedal, resisting the pressure to switch back to Alex Lyon, the initial starting goaltender. It was a wise decision.
Bobrovsky singlehandedly altered the trajectory of the series against Boston, toppling the NHL’s greatest regular-season team, and then helping the Cats expel the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes in an astonishing nine total games.
Bobrovsky is now the favourite on the sportsbooks to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. If he continues to play like he did since Game 5 of the first round, the Vegas Golden Knights almost certainly won’t win the Cup final. It is hard to win if you can’t score.
The most interesting data point for the Golden Knights is found in the stat Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Vegas played the second, third, and sixth-worst goaltenders in the metric in their journey to the Cup final. Good luck or a product of their skill? It’s probably both, but it doesn’t matter because Bobrovsky is a different animal completely.
The site Evolving Hockey provides data for GSAx back to the 2007-08 playoffs. In the last 16 playoffs, only Igor Shesterkin in 2021-22 had a better playoffs than Bobrovsky is having now. In related news, the Golden Knights have an 11.79 shooting percentage at 5-on-5, the highest of any team in the postseason by a mile. Regression is coming, no doubt accelerated by Bobrovsky, and since Vegas probably won’t score much, it needs to beat Florida with its team defence. So yeah, I’m going hard on the unders.
Florida Panthers at Vegas Golden Knights
Saturday June 3 – 8 PM ET
A lot of attention will be paid to these teams’ similarities, but one area in which they can differ is on the breakout. For Florida, the thought process is “when in doubt, flip it out.” For the Golden Knights, the speed with which they exit their end is critically important.
When the Golden Knights have struggled this postseason, they have sometimes been too casual when retrieving the puck and making the first pass. Under pressure, the Golden Knights will look to swing the puck up the boards to the outlet on the wall or tap it laterally to their defensive partner
We just saw the Carolina Hurricanes, who are a one-touch-and-exit breakout team, struggle against the Panthers’ forecheck. If the Golden Knights are lackadaisical, will they get swallowed up? A good forecheck is about positioning and timing, and when Florida is playing well, it can simultaneously take away the middle and perimeter. I think the Golden Knights will have a lot of trouble breaking the Panthers’ 1-2-2 forecheck.
For Vegas, speedy puck movement and decision-making are the name of the game. Dithering is death. In the Western Conference final, a sequence that was instructive occurred early in Game 6 and led to a delay of game penalty by the Dallas Stars’ Esa Lindell.
Defenceman Brayden McNabb fired the puck up the boards to his outlet, it was chipped past the pinching Dallas defender, and the rush produced a prime scoring chance thanks to a puck-carrier dishing it to defenceman Shea Theodore, who swooped in on the second wave. The shot was blocked by Dallas goaltender Jake Oettinger, but when Lindell knocked the puck out of play, the Golden Knights would score on the man advantage produced by the penalty, extending their lead to 2-0.
For the Golden Knights, Theodore’s involvement is key because they’ll need playmaking from everyone, including their defencemen, if they want to vanquish Florida.
The Panthers’ scoring is more concentrated than the Golden Knights. The first two lines produce for Florida (Sam Reinhart chips in on the power play) and the bottom-six forwards practice the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm.
Vegas’s success is partially a byproduct of its depth. Against Dallas in Game 6, two of the first three Vegas goals were scored by the fourth line. The Golden Knights’ second line virtually no-showed for the final four games of the series, with Chandler Stephenson scoring his goal in Game 5 in the middle of a line change. It didn’t end up mattering.
In the Western Conference final, the second unit of the Golden Knights’ power play had a big series. So did depth forward Nicolas Roy. And that depth, where the scoring can come from anywhere, separates Vegas from Florida. The Golden Knights will inevitably use William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, along with Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez, against one of the Panthers’ fearsome top-two lines. If the Golden Knights can shut down one of the Panthers’ top trios, and stay out of the penalty box, will their depth overcome the Panthers’ top-heaviness?
A lot has been made of how well the Golden Knights protect the slot and stay in front of pucks. They are arguably the best in the league at shot-blocking and eliminating passing lanes. But the Panthers have a couple of players who are uniquely capable of busting the Golden Knights’ zone coverage. And that conversation starts with Matthew Tkachuk.
Like an unbelievable post player in basketball, when Tkachuk gets the puck below the goal line he can use his strength and footwork to shove his way into the paint. The Golden Knights have a lot of size in their defensive group, so in theory they may be able to push him back when he tries to bully them. But Tkachuk and teammate Carter Verhaeghe read plays so well that they can strike when there is a delay in the split-second “where-is-my-man?” identification, or in the case of Vegas, a hesitation in who is shutting down that space by the near post?
Vegas goaltender Adin Hill has been stellar since he took over as the starter, but I think the Golden Knights may struggle to contain Florida as their players try to invade the slot. Last round, Dallas recognized that their defencemen could find room on the back side or dive into space when all the Vegas players were facing the puck. Florida’s defencemen are aggressive at worming their way into the offence, so I anticipate them trying to find cracks in the Golden Knights’ layers.
The number 10.47 is a salient one for Vegas. It represents the high-danger chances per 60 minutes the Golden Knights have allowed and generated during the playoffs. In other words, their defence has been superb while their offence has created chances slightly above what Columbus produced at 5-on-5 during the regular season.
Vegas’s high shooting percentage masks an offence that hasn’t been quite as consistent as it seems at surface level. But I think coach Bruce Cassidy is anticipating a dip in scoring for his squad, and its strategy will be based around getting the puck deep and controlling territorial advantage. Which is awfully similar to what I see Florida doing.
I think Vegas and Florida will be looking to win this game 1-0, and even if there are a few more goals, I think they will come from the nucleus, possibly on the power play. With scoring drying up, I want the unders for the guys who are doing the neutralizing. That means taking Anton Lundell and Aaron Ekblad from Florida and Roy and Alex Pietrangelo from Vegas.
Roy is definitely the scariest of the four to fade at the moment, as he has collected nine points in the Golden Knights’ last 12 games. But as well as Roy is playing, he posted only 30 points over 65 games during the regular season and went scoreless in the first round. With Roy moving down to the fourth line, that should in theory reduce his time on ice and thereby his chances.
I think Florida wins Game 1, but if Hill stays hot, it seems plausible Vegas will come out on top. What seems less murky is that we are primed for a hotly contested but offensively limited contest. To me, the big play is the unders, to capitalize off the lack of goals.
Picks: Anton Lundell U 0.5 points -175, Aaron Ekblad U 0.5 points -175, Alex Pietrangelo U 0.5 points -130, Nicolas Roy U 0.5 points -150