Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Saturday's slate
Because it’s an 82-game season, teams invariably experience ups and downs. Of late, the Winnipeg Jets, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lightning have been living out the comic haplessness of the book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Only their everything-goes-wrong experience has extended far longer than a day.
The Jets last win was three weeks ago. The Capitals haven’t won since January 18, which is approaching a month. The Lightning got rest and relaxation over the All-Star break but proceeded to lose their first two games coming back. Their incentives are different, but I see all three teams bouncing back this weekend.
Washington Capitals at Boston Bruins
Saturday, February 10 – 3:30 PM ET
Between December 23rd and December 30th, the Washington Capitals lost four straight games. Bracketed between two shootout losses were two 5-1 losses to their divisional rivals, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. That was bad, but the present is worse.
Currently, the Capitals have lost six straight, five of them by two or more goals. Washington had a 2-1 lead against Florida on Thursday night, which they surrendered, losing 4-2. Compounding the embarrassment, that game was part of the Capitals Mentors’ Trip, where dads or close family members attend games. The Trip continues on Saturday. In front of loved ones can Washington zap their losing streak and upset Boston?
The game plan is clear as day. Washington will try to negate its lack of foot speed by establishing the forecheck and looking to get pucks and bodies to the net. While some of the Caps’ wily veterans don’t have the dynamism they once possessed, with more offensive zone time, they can draw penalties and convert on opportunities in tight spaces. The Bruins have two tremendous goaltenders, so producing traffic to take away their eyes is paramount. The Capitals can sprinkle in rush chances from the counterattack and with their forward driving up the gut off clean breakouts.
While Thursday night was a closely fought loss against the Panthers, it also left a lot to be desired. The Capitals’ forecheck was abysmal. Washington spent much of the game in its own end, and through two periods did an adequate job protecting the interior. In the third period, that bulwark crumbled, and the Panthers got to hack away at slot shots galore.
But the biggest problem of the game was the Capitals’ breakout, which was dreadful. Washington’s defencemen struggled to connect on the first pass to the outlet. Forwards struggled to flip the puck or carry the puck out of the zone. Puck management in general deserved a failing grade, but in their own end, it was an unceasing headache.
The Bruins have the personnel to expose a loosey-goosey Capitals squad that mismanages the puck. Boston can make different offensive zone passes, whether that is the cross-seam pass with center lane drive, or by passing off the wall to David Pastrnak in the high slot, or to the forward in the low slot with the playmaker from behind the goal line.
And yet, Washington finds a way to hang around. In 31 of 49 games, the Capitals either won or, if they lost, stayed within a goal. Goaltending has been a strength, and while Washington’s top-six is old, it certainly possesses skill. The Nic Dowd line also can be an unexpected source of offence. Despite losing a half-dozen games in a row, the Capitals still have the same amount of wins as the postseason-hungry Islanders and one less win than the Penguins.
Look for gap control to play an important role on Saturday. If the Capitals’ defencemen can step up in the neutral zone and intercept passes when Boston’s wings try to blow the zone, they can reclaim offensive zone time. Conversely, if Boston tries to hold the blue line and Washington spews pucks out just as they are leaving the zone, the Bruins could feast. I think Washington’s man-on-man defence may prove surprisingly sticky, and I see this being a close affair that the Capitals could win or at least stay within a goal.
Pick: Capitals Puck line (+1.5) -125
Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets
Saturday, February 10 – 7:00 PM ET
Since December 4th, only three NHL teams have more wins than the Tampa Bay Lightning: the Edmonton Oilers, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Florida Panthers. Surely, after losing future Hall of Famer Andrei Vasilevskiy to injury for an extended period to start the season, the Lightning have reclaimed their mojo.
But among the eleven teams that have 15 wins or more in that stretch of time, at 5-on-5 the Lightning have the second-worst shot differential, the second-worst expected goals percentage, and the third-worst high-danger chances percentage. Familiar crutches for the Lightning have helped buoy their recent success: the power play, Vasilevskiy, and Nikita Kucherov.
While this is a familiar formula for the Lightning, the environment they find themselves in is very different. No longer can Tampa Bay coast to a playoff bid. The Eastern Conference is far more competitive and, due to Vasilevskiy’s prolonged absence, the Lightning find themselves clinging to a playoff spot. Having dropped two straight games this week, I’m optimistic the Lightning will end their three-game road trip against a very beleaguered Columbus Blue Jackets team with a win.
The Blue Jackets are going to look to victimize an enfeebled Tampa Bay defensive group. I expect the Blue Jacket’s defencemen to be aggressive when pinching and trying to jam the opposing outlet. The Lightning surrender quality scoring chances when opponents pass out of the Tampa Bay overload. Furthermore, if the Blue Jackets force the Lightning to box them out, Columbus may win that battle.
The Lightning want to take away quality chances by eliminating the middle and letting opponents skate along the outside, but in practice they execute that about as effectively as this writer swears off spicy foods. The Blue Jackets do have the talent to lay the Lightning’s defensive plans to waste.
And yet, if Tampa Bay can tidy up its own end, there is an abundance of opportunity in the attacking zone. Columbus’s breakout continues to be a mess, as they fumble direct passes and short passes in hopes of making a controlled exit. When hemmed in their own end, the Blue Jackets struggle with their reads in defensive zone coverage and will absentmindedly leave players around the net open because of confusion.
The Lightning were awful against the Islanders on Thursday night. With the playoffs two months away, games like Saturday’s against an eminently beatable opponent represent a critical two points.
The Blue Jackets won their last game against the St. Louis Blues before the All-Star break. Only two other times this season has Columbus won twice in a row, and that was in November and October. This feels like a four-point day for Kucherov as the Lightning sail to a multi-goal victory.
Pick: Lightning Moneyline -178
Pittsburgh Penguins at Winnipeg Jets
Saturday February 10 – 7:00 PM ET
The Winnipeg Jets must have felt great on January 21st. They had the best points percentage of any team in the NHL. Their defence was virtually impenetrable. Their 5-on-5 offence was top seven in the NHL. Their advanced stats were good, not signaling any red flags. But security in the NHL is an illusion.
In the subsequent five games, the Jets have zero wins and one point. Winnipeg can’t score, and its defence is allowing more than three goals with uncharacteristic frequency. From November 4th to January 20th, the Jets allowed more than three goals zero times. In their last five games, it has happened three times.
During their losing streak, when the game has been within one goal at 5-on-5, the Jets have been unacceptably bad in expected goals and high danger chances. In the Flyers game on Thursday night, the failures were widespread: bad checking and boxing out, a barbless forecheck and listless rush, a transition defence where the defending forward got preyed on. And oddly enough, this uninspired performance against the Flyers came with the Jets being close to full health.
I think the Penguins game on Saturday will showcase the Jets recapturing what made them the NHL’s top team, and that starts with team defence. When the Jets were humming, they were the best in the NHL in rush chances against and top three in slot shots against. They had an elite defence, and they had a physical, speedy offence that could muscle its way into the paint or strike off the rush using the speed of their wings.
In contrast, the Penguins’ defence is vulnerable. They can be bullied in the low slot. They can lose their coverage and give dangerous forwards time and space. If Winnipeg can establish offensive zone time through clean breakouts and better forechecking support, Pittsburgh can be smushed.
The Penguins will look to spread Winnipeg out vertically and by using the width of the ice. Off the faceoff and on the cycle, the Penguins are very clever at using motion to open up the cross-seam pass. With Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson playing most of the game, both blueliners give extra teeth to the Penguins off the rush. How Winnipeg gaps up to shrink space will be critical in this contest because, if they can defuse the Penguins’ machinations and put Pittsburgh in a defensive posture, they can manufacture a multi-goal lead.
The Jets have been formidable at home this season, posting a 16-7-2 record while Pittsburgh is 10-9-4 on the road. I think the Jets are the better team, are cranky about their losing streak, and are a tough adversary in their own arena. I love them on Saturday.
Pick: Jets Moneyline -156