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Intelligent Hockey: Best bets for Oilers-Stars Game 2

Jason Robertson Dallas Stars Jason Robertson - The Canadian Press

Advancing in the NHL playoffs requires reliability and focus. As such, one would assume the Dallas Stars would be the archetype for starting a series with an exclamation point, not a question mark.

Their resume is spotless. During the regular season, the Stars’ longest losing streak was a modest four. Dallas was elite in the advanced stats. On a more micro level, this team consistently starts on time. While the Stars’ first-period goal differential dropped from +27 in 2022-23 to +13 in 2023-24, they were still objectively good in the first frame.

And yet, bizarrely, over the last three postseasons, Dallas has lost in Game 1 in all seven series they have competed in.

Thursday night was the latest tale of heartbreak. Despite goaltender Jake Oettinger making a spectacular save on Connor McDavid to extend overtime, the Stars couldn’t capitalize on their second opportunity. Initially the Stars were the favourite on FanDuel to win the series, but after the loss, the Stars’ odds have dropped to +164. Hello, square one.

I think the Stars will claw back on Saturday. Again. And while the over/under has dropped from 6.5 total goals in Game 1 to 5.5 in Game 2, I also am not convinced we’ll see a low-scoring affair. As such, I am wagering on the Stars to even the series and force the star players on both sides to stamp their mark on the game.

Edmonton Oilers at Dallas Stars

Saturday May 25 – 8:00 PM ET

The numbers for the Stars coming out of Game 1 aren’t great. They were bested in high-danger chances by surrendering 16 while manufacturing 10. The Stars’ expected goals against was icky. And they were outshot at 5-on-5 by seven shots.

While the Stars posted a top-three goals per game during the regular season, it is their defence that has buoyed them during the postseason. The Stars’ gaps, defensive coverage, and box-outs have been a large reason this team is in the conference finals. Entering Thursday, the only playoff team with a lower expected goals against and lower high-danger chances against was the Washington Capitals.

But kudos to the Oilers for finding the fissures in the edifice. At times the Stars’ breakout foundered against the Oilers’ forecheck, most notably resulting in the first and last Oilers goals. In Round 2, Dallas did an outstanding job containing the Avalanche on the rush, dramatically reducing quality chances. But in Game 1, the goal by Edmonton’s Zach Hyman came off three Dallas forecheckers getting caught beneath the puck. On the spectacular Oettinger save on McDavid in overtime, Hyman attracted attention to the strong side and then preyed on the absent coverage on McDavid on the weak side—right in front of the net.

Some of the Oilers’ opportunities were brought about by uncharacteristic Dallas mistakes. Superstar defenceman Miro Heiskanen gifted Warren Foegele a breakaway by mishandling the puck. In overtime, the Oilers loaded up with the McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Hyman line, and ran a set play that they must have run nearly 500 times during the regular season. If you’ve watched Edmonton play, you know it. McDavid swings behind the net and looks toward the slot as Mattias Ekholm cuts to the net. Somehow, the Stars allowed Ekholm to waltz into the slot without disturbance.

So, does this mean the Stars will win Game 2 by totally eliminating chances and turning it into a low-event game? I don’t see that happening. The Oilers’ offence, especially that of their top players, is so good that I believe they’ll find opportunities.

Dallas can deny clean entries and try to sort out their coverage better, but the Oilers’ goals per game is higher in the playoffs than it was during the regular season. And during the regular season, the Oilers had the best offensive advanced stats by a lot. When Dallas brings a better effort on Saturday, I see more offensive fireworks, not less.

Spin zone: Dallas has some threads to pull after Thursday night. The stretch pass is an important tool for the Stars in terms of parachuting out of their own end and getting on the attack. While there were glimmers of potency, I expect a better platform for attacking Edmonton will be using the long pass to put Dallas on the rush and initiate their forecheck.

The forecheck was an important source of offence for the Stars in Game 1, especially when they were able to hem the Oilers in and spread them out. The Oilers were impressive at boxing out and keeping Dallas players out of the slot, and the Stars will surely look to create more traffic and tip opportunities to make the life of Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner harder in Game 2.

While the Stars’ scoring is more distributed, there are still primary players who buoy the team, and I fully anticipate Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson to be dangerous and register points in Game 2. After starting Game 1 together, it appears the two will be split apart.

Johnston has been the Stars’ best forward in the playoffs. He possesses brilliant hockey awareness in terms of spacing and facilitating offence but has not scored a point in three straight games. The last time Johnston went four games without a point was the beginning of January.

His line with Jamie Benn and Logan Stankoven did gin up a few high-danger chances despite yielding five. If Roope Hintz comes back, that could signal a return to the second power-play unit for Johnston, but with the Stars primed to score three or more goals, I like Johnston to notch at least one point.

The Stars’ power play was a failure in Game 1. One could argue it played the biggest role in their loss. But when it looked its best, during overtime, it was Jason Robertson coming off the left flank, ripping shots. With two shots off the post on the man advantage and one shot at 5-on-5 that spurred a Tyler Seguin goal, I like Robertson testing Skinner early and often on Saturday.

Heiskanen is one of the best defencemen in the league and has been arguably the Stars’ most important skater this postseason. But Thursday was a forgettable effort for him. Logging absurd amounts of minutes, Heiskanen is perhaps a little fatigued and wasn’t his normal dominant self.

If the Stars are to win, they will need their defence contributing offence, whether that be interchanging with the forwards, creating slot shots, or jumping into the rush. Heiskanen is a catalyst for the Stars on both offence and defence, and after being held pointless in two straight games, I don’t see that happening in a third, must-win game.

If you’ve ever flown with a baby or a toddler, you know that things can go off the rails at any moment. You hope to maintain a steady equilibrium, even though you know how precarious it is. The same is true of Stuart Skinner in net for the Oilers.

If Skinner crumbles and his play sinks to where it was when he got temporarily replaced by goaltender Calvin Pickard, the pressure will be on the Oilers to outscore their way out of his foibles. In short, Edmonton doesn’t envision winning a game 2-1, and I don’t see that either. So, with the Oilers’ concentrated scoring, I want to load up on the big boys.

Evan Bouchard has generated a point in 11 of 13 playoff games. Draisaitl has contributed an assist in 11 of 13 playoff games. As incredible as he is, McDavid has been held pointless in three of 13 postseason games. Yet betting on Bouchard and Draisaitl is significantly more affordable than McDavid. And while McDavid is the best player in the world, Bouchard has been sensational in these playoffs while Draisaitl is the favorite to win the Conn Smythe right now if the Oilers win it all. I want Bouchard and Draisaitl involved in my bets, even though I don’t see Edmonton winning Game 2.

The Stars came back from losing Games 1 and 2 in Round 1, winning three straight and then eking by in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights. It is possible to recover from being down 0-2, but against this Edmonton team it seems unlikely. On Saturday, I am betting on Dallas to even the series and for the big names to fill up the scoresheet.

Picks: Stars Moneyline -142, Jason Robertson to record 1+ points -186, Miro Heiskanen to record 1+ points -160, Wyatt Johnston to record 1+ points -146, Evan Bouchard to record 1+ points -186,

Leon Draisaitl to record 1+ assists -154