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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Saturday's slate

Winnipeg Jets Nikolaj Ehlers - The Canadian Press

New Year’s is a time for reflection and resolutions. Overly rosy goals may not have been met these past twelve months, but 2024 will be different. Work habits revamped. A clearer, more intense focus. Less bad habits, more healthy living. A daily appreciation of the "je ne sais quoi" that characterizes being a human instead of stressing over the minor and trivial. Yup, 2024 is our year, the one where every bet hits and the beer flows like wine. And that starts this weekend.

Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets

Saturday, December 30 – 2:00 PM ET

The Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild rank first and third in points percentage, respectively, in the month of December, and it isn’t challenging to draw parallels from their recent successes. Both teams have overcome long-term injuries to significant players. And both have done so with outstanding team defence, with the Jets ranking first in goals against per 60 minutes and the Wild third over this past month.

Notwithstanding the similarities, I view the Jets as a viable Cup contender, while Minnesota is closer to a frisky first-round matchup. The better club in the long term, I also like the Jets more in the near term, as I envision them snapping the Wild’s win streak Saturday afternoon.

The Jets don’t have a glaring weakness, which has been underscored since the injury to top sniper Kyle Connor. Since Connor’s injury, the Jets rank fourth in the NHL in expected goals percentage and are dominating in terms of controlling shots. The first line of Gabriel Vilardi, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mark Scheifele is crushing opponents, racking up a 11-2 goal differential and a sparkling expected goals percentage. On the second and third line, the Jets have speed and skill with players like Cole Perfetti, and size and skill with players like Nino Niederreiter and Adam Lowry.

When the Jets are on the attack, they are miserable to defend. Winnipeg has a keen understanding of how to create motion at the point as a table-setter for ginning up motion around the low slot. Confusion seeps into the interior in terms of who is defending which player, enabling inside position and rebound opportunities.

The Wild are missing two of their top defencemen in Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, and while Brock Faber and Jacob Middleton have played very well in expanded minutes, the second and third pairs are vulnerable against the Jets. Look for Winnipeg to spread Minnesota out by bringing a forward high, and then shooting into a double-stack screen for a tip while leaving open an option for a backdoor play. For the Wild, there needs to be a balance between using rim outs to counter the Jets’ heavy forecheck and not constantly punting on puck possession. Good luck with that.

The Jets are scary on the forecheck and cycle, but tight gaps in the neutral zone will be paramount for the Wild as well. Off the rush, the Jets have a player post up who can whip the puck into the middle of the ice to try to generate speed through the neutral zone. The Jets will exploit the wing-to-wing pass if it is open, but they also do a nice job pushing the centre lane to open up a player for the second wave, generally a defenceman.

Against Detroit on Wednesday night, the Wild allowed a lot of rush chances on the back side in the first period, as the Red Wings were clever in terms of getting behind the Minnesota defencemen. That margin for error won’t exist against Winnipeg because of who the Jets have in goal.

Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has the best Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) of any goalie over the past two months. On FanDuel, Thatcher Demko remains the Vezina Trophy favorite, but Hellebuyck has the second-shortest odds. Perhaps the most astonishing stat is that the Jets have not allowed more than three goals since Nov. 2. If Minnesota is going to win this game, it will be a low scoring, grinding victory.

The Wild will need to be precise with their chip-ins against the Jets, especially because they want to be careful not to feed the Jets’ breakout. The Wild excel when they layer their forecheck, and I think on Saturday they should look to shoot from everywhere.

The Wild haven’t lost at home under John Hynes. Unfortunately for Minnesota, this game is in Winnipeg. Also, winning five straight is extremely difficult. Smarting after a loss to Chicago, I like the Jets to come out on top.

Pick: Jets Moneyline -134

Montreal Canadiens at Florida Panthers

Saturday, December 30 – 7:00 PM ET

The fastest way to die against the Panthers is by dint of the forecheck. If the Habs’ breakout stumbles, they are cat food. Florida does a superb job taking away the walls and having their defencemen create turnovers off pinches. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Montreal to use stretch plays through the middle or to harness the flip pass. Something the Canadiens have in their arsenal is very good faceoff men and, if they design smart breakout plays, they can force the Panthers to defend.

This is what makes Montreal such a tantalizing underdog (+1.5) puck line team in this matchup. Despite the Panthers having a pronounced advantage in terms of talent and depth, the Canadiens compete hard every night and do an admirable job not beating themselves. Against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, the Canadiens fell behind 2-0 early in the first period, but they fought back and battled to a 3-3 tie in the third before a late Carolina goal vanquished them.

Montreal’s best hope for winning this game is by getting the puck beneath the goal line and by battering Florida with its forecheck and cycle. The Panthers play on Friday night against the redoubtable New York Rangers, and Saturday will be their third game in four nights. They may have tired legs. The Canadiens defencemen are key cogs in their offence and when the cycle is buzzing, the Habs’ offence utilizes a lot of motion.  

While likely Panthers goaltender Anthony Stolarz has been sharp this season with a 3.47 GSAx, Montreal’s aim should be to milk time in the offensive zone and test Stolarz early and often.

Too much time in Florida’s offensive zone and the game could spin out of control. The Panthers love to use the low-to-high play and then force their opponents to box them out when they shoot for tips. The Panthers are a physical bunch, and they are unafraid to incorporate picks on the cycle or off the rush.

The Canadiens’ defencemen can be aggressive on their pinches in the offensive zone, and one thing to watch is when Florida has its forward slide down low on the breakout so he can chuck it across the ice to Carter Verhaeghe, who has flown the zone on the weak side. Florida uses that Verhaeghe fly pattern to set up a two-man game that can be difficult to defend, and if Montreal has trouble sorting out its coverage, it could get victimized.

The Panthers have beaten their opponents by two or more goals in 12 of 34 games this season while Montreal has lost by two or more goals in 10 of their 34 games. If the Habs hang around, they could pull off an upset against a possibly tired Panthers team, or at least keep the game within a goal.

Pick: Canadiens Puck line (+1.5) -118

New Jersey Devils at Boston Bruins

Saturday, December 30 – 7:00 PM ET

Despite losing their No. 1 and No. 2 centres during the offseason, the Bruins shocked the hockey world by starting the season winning nine of their first 10 games. After a stunning first-round playoffs exit upset a magical regular season in 2022-23, the Bruins appeared to have metabolized their heartbreak and reinforced their defence. They got all the regular-season plaudits last season, but the new incarnation would push the team to the Cup glory that eluded them last year.

Boston’s next 16 games had a dramatically different outcome than its first 16. After starting the season 13-1-2, the Bruins went 6-6-4 in the following 16, finally quashing their most recent losing streak of four games with a resounding 4-1 win over Buffalo on Wednesday. Their advanced stats of late are poor, especially defensively. And their goaltending has been very good, but not quite terrific. Dubious that the arrow will permanently point down for the Bruins, I am buying into the idea that they are on the verge of recapturing their winning ways.

In their first game after the holiday break, the Bruins exhibited some of the hallmarks of what has made them a fearsome team under coach Jim Montgomery. They created off the forecheck. Their power play was humming. Their defencemen were involved in the offence. And they held Buffalo to five scoring chances at 5-on-5 through two periods despite opening up a multi-goal lead.

Against the Devils on Saturday, I think the Bruins stitch together two consecutive wins for the first time since the beginning of December. But that objective is only realized if they double down on Bruins hockey and dig in on the forecheck.

The Devils are arguably the most dynamic team in the NHL. They possess oodles of speed and are potent off the rush. Replete with skill at forward and defence, the Devils have different tactics to manipulate defences, harnessing the give-and-go and one-touch pass to open up passing and skating lanes. Cede the defensive zone to the Devils and they will bend the opposing coverage in a way that unlocks a cross-seam pass.

But New Jersey’s offence is not infallible as it can be weaponized and defanged. In a tightly fought game on Wednesday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets seized opportunities on the counterattack against New Jersey. The Devils got caught beneath the puck when four skaters saw their rush chance blow up or when a New Jersey forward was caught flat-footed covering for his defenceman activating.

When the Devils got hemmed in their end, the Blue Jackets found chances for deflections by getting above the opposing defender. New Jersey’s defencemen spat up pucks against the forecheck. With the Devils playing on Friday night, Saturday will be their third game in four nights, and their energy for defence might be sapped.

But the trump card in this matchup ultimately may be goaltending – or, for the Devils, the lack thereof. The Bruins have two strong goaltending options while the Devils have zero. Nico Daws was called up this week from Utica. Daws hasn’t played in the NHL since 2021-22, and Vitek Vanecek has been positively awful this season.

The Devils are 1-6 in the second game of a back-to-back. I think the Bruins are on the upswing, and playing at home has been a happy place where they have won 66 percent of their games. Better rested and with different avenues for victory, I like Boston to win on Saturday.

Pick: Bruins Moneyline -160