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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets For Saturday’s NHL Slate

Tampa Bay Lightning Brandon Hagel Anthony Cirelli Brandon Hagel Anthony Cirelli - The Canadian Press

The NHL season fits neatly into three acts. In Part I, expectations are set. It is a time of spontaneous energy as players adjust to new teammates and systems while shedding the rust from the summer layoff.

Part II is a confrontation with reality. By the trade deadline, contenders versus draft-lottery aspirants are cleanly delineated, and the remainder of the season features powerhouses tinkering and experimenting in preparation for the playoffs while players on doormat teams strive for statistical milestones or attempt to establish good optics before the NHL’s front offices.

Finally, Act III sees half the franchises rendered irrelevant as the other sixteen compete for the big prize. We are now nearing the end of Act II, and with odd results being produced daily, I’m targeting the unders of players facing high-caliber defences.

Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins
Saturday, March 25 – 1:00 PM ET

The Lightning excel at defining roles. If you are Nikita Kucherov or Brayden Point, your job is to score. If you are Anthony Cirelli, your duty is to plug the holes in the team’s defence and impede the other team’s offence.

On Evolving Hockey, Cirelli is one of the few top-nine Lightning forwards with a positive defensive rating. Coach Jon Cooper will use him to spearhead his shutdown forward line in the postseason, and it is evident that Cooper is toying with possible playoff line combinations lately as Cirelli has seen time with Alex Killorn and Tanner Jeannot.

Even though Cirelli joined forces with Steven Stamkos and remained yoked to Killorn Thursday night, it isn’t entirely evident this team can score at 5-on-5 when Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are on the bench. Against the Senators, the Point line engineered four high-danger chances. The other three lines manufactured three combined. The Cirelli line contributed zero.

Part of the blame for the Lightning’s top-heavy forward group can be assigned to the Lightning’s front office, which ironically has double-downed on allocating its resources to bolstering the team’s forward depth. So far, the forward additions at the trade deadline have left a lot to be desired, and the defensive group is frighteningly thin.

Point, Kucherov, and Stamkos will always get more ice time than Cirelli. But recently, players like Nick Paul have consistently logged more than Cirelli too. But suddenly, due to new circumstances, Paul has become an attractive under candidate.

Before Thursday night, Paul had been playing with Stamkos, but against the Senators, he and Ross Colton were joined by Pat Maroon. Paul’s line took seven faceoffs, only one of which was in the offensive zone. The line also saw tough minutes against Alex DeBrincat and Drake Batherson. Folks, that is a checking line.

Things don’t get much better for Cirelli and Paul in terms of special-teams opportunities. Cirelli bounces between playing on the second unit of the power play and not playing on the man advantage at all. That is fine because his two most recent goals have come shorthanded as he is the pillar of the Lightning’s penalty kill. Paul plays on the second unit of the power play, but he also soaks up minutes on the second unit of the penalty kill.

Cirelli has scored in 18 of 49 games this season. Paul has collected a point in 25 of 71 contests. On Saturday, the Lightning face the NHL’s best defence. I think the Lightning may snap their three-game losing streak and beat the Bruins in Boston, but it will be more because of Cirelli and Paul’s work neutralizing the Bruins’ top scorers than posting points.

Picks: Anthony Cirelli U 0.5 points -155, Nicholas Paul U 0.5 points -175

Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild
Saturday, March 25 – 5:00 PM ET

When a superstar prospect like Connor Bedard is available in the draft, it gets weird because bad teams and good teams may suddenly desire the same outcome from their matchup. In other words, the Wild and Blackhawks’ front offices both want the Wild to win on Saturday. And the roster Chicago trots out these days is helping it aggressively push its “losing” agenda.

Philipp Kurashev isn’t a spectacular player, but his injury on Thursday night further depletes a sad Blackhawks forward group. Chicago’s top minute-loggers these days among the forwards are Tyler Johnson, Taylor Raddysh, Andreas Athanasiou, Jason Dickinson, and Boris Katchouk. In their previous stops, these players were healthy scratches or fourth-line forwards. Now they are top-six forwards. Unlike Major League or The Replacements where the misfits win the day, the cast-offs have been getting crushed of late. During their current three-game losing streak, the Blackhawks have been outscored 15-3.

It’s hard to see the Blackhawks’ recent struggles improving on Saturday. Since February 1st, only the Bruins have a lower goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Minnesota, and the principal reason for that is Wild goaltender Filip Gustavsson. Over the past two months, Gustavsson has the best Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) of any goaltender in the NHL. In Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) he boasts an 18.38, which is the best in the league over that span by a crazy degree. In second place is Linus Ullmark, who has a 12.58 GSAA over that stretch.

Over his last 12 starts, Gustavsson has held teams to two goals or less nine times. In expected goals against and high-danger chances against, the Wild rank 13th and 7th respectively. In a game where I think the Blackhawks stand a good chance of getting held to one or zero goals, I want to fade several players.

After the Kurashev injury, Athanasiou saw time with Katchouk and Jujhar Khaira, as coach Luke Richardson kept the Johnson-Dickinson-Raddysh line intact. Johnson has collected a point in nearly half his games this season, unlike Raddysh who fails to collect a point in nearly two-thirds of his games. Having an opportunity to bet against depth players like Athanasiou and Raddysh to score is a gift to bettors.

Finally, Seth Jones has been the Blackhawks’ defensive anchor and ranks second best on the team in goals above replacement (GAR) because of his strong 200-foot play. He has the skating and playmaking to lead the rush and create from the back end. But he’s been streaky this season, and right now he is wallowing in a cold spell, having failed to register a point in eight straight games. On the season, Jones hasn’t collected a point in roughly 60 percent of the team’s games.

The Wild lost to the Flyers on Thursday night, allowing four goals in the process, a stark reminder that opponents with moribund offences can perk up. With the opportunity to capture first place in the Central Division, I think the Wild handily dismantle the Blackhawks on Saturday.

Picks: Taylor Raddysh U 0.5 points -155,
Andreas Athanasiou U 0.5 points -190, Seth Jones U 0.5 points -160

Toronto Maple Leafs at Carolina Hurricanes
Saturday, March 25 – 7:00 PM ET

When the Hurricanes lost Andrei Svechnikov for the season with a torn ACL, the cataclysmic injury to their power forward exacerbated a lingering issue for the franchise. The Canes are thin when it comes to playmaking forwards, relying to an alarming degree on their forecheck to grind out victories.

Now, at this juncture, the Canes are a one-line team. Coach Rod Brind’Amour moved Martin Necas to the first line to play with Sebastian Aho, leaving the second, third, and fourth lines almost indistinguishable. Looking at their 5-on-5 numbers, their shots and high-danger chances differentials are strikingly similar.

The Hurricanes want to pressure teams by getting the puck below the goal line and starting the attack from there. But the Canes need to create looks in transition for offensive balance, and against New York on Thursday night, it was the Canes fourth line, led by Derek Stepan, that demonstrated it could create offence off the rush by capitalizing on quick-ups and using the flip pass. The lack of separation between the second and fourth lines leaves me cold on Kotkaniemi, Carolina’s underwhelming second-line center.

In the advanced stats, Kotkaniemi tracks as a well-rounded player. On Evolving Hockey, he rates respectably on offence and defence. Personally, I don’t really see what his above-average skill is besides having a large body. He isn’t a great shooter, passer, or puck-handler. He isn’t fast and he’s not great in puck battles. In the Hurricanes’ home-and-home against the Rangers, Kotkaniemi’s best attribute seemed to be looking to go low-to-high to feed the team’s defencemen.

Before the Svechnikov injury, the Hurricanes’ high-danger chances per 60 minutes was 14.97, best in the NHL. In the six games since the injury, they have posted a rate of 12.2, which is in the bottom-half of the league over that nearly two-week stretch.

With Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov out of the lineup due to the birth of his first child, the Hurricanes will get either Joseph Woll or Matt Murray in net. Murray hasn’t been lights out this month, but Woll, when he has gotten time in the last few months, has been stout.

Overall, I’m fading the Canes’ offence in what I anticipate as a low-scoring, tight-checking battle. With Kotkaniemi not getting first power-play-unit minutes and not sharing ice time with Sebastian Aho or Necas, I like the under for his points on Saturday.

Pick: Jesperi Kotkaniemi U 0.5 points -140