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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Stanley Cup Final Game 4

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After Game 1, there were two ways to understand what happened in a misleading 3-0 Florida Panthers victory. One interpretation was that the Edmonton Oilers had completely dominated play and only lost because Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stood on his head.

Certainly, there is truth in that. Another way to look at it is that, even though the Panthers skaters did virtually nothing right in Game 1, they won. They were toothless on the forecheck and cycle. Their defensive coverage was disjointed, with uncharacteristic stumbles in checking and struggles in box outs. But Florida left the rink the victor.

It seemed extremely unlikely that the Panthers’ forwards and defencemen would play that poorly again, so there was a distinct possibility that the Oilers had just squandered their best opportunity to take command of the series. With the benefit of hindsight, this has proven true.

Bobrovsky serves as an emergency brake for the Panthers. Before the series, it seemed impossible to imagine that the Oilers would get swept, but the Panthers basically don’t have a weakness. They have depth at every position, an incredible team defence, and forwards who can score in a variety of ways. Even their special teams are superb.

Entering Game 4, I don’t see value in picking the winner. Instead, my bets orient around one of the Panthers’ greatest strengths: keeping games low scoring. Especially coming off a contest that yielded seven goals, I see Florida mucking up Game 4 and think the unders are the play.

Florida Panthers at Edmonton Oilers
Saturday June 15 – 8:00 PM ET

By this point, we understand what the Oilers’ game plan is. In Game 1, coach Kris Knoblauch cited his team’s territorial possession as a big reason for Edmonton defanging the Panthers’ forecheck. Although this territorial edge vanished in Game 2, Edmonton reclaimed it in Game 3.

After looking to use motion a lot at the start of the series, the Oilers now are leaning on the low cycle and using the low-to-high play to get shots from the point for tips and rebounds. Edmonton is beseeching its defencemen to contribute offensively, which has manifested with them creeping toward the slot and thereby adding an extra person to the forecheck that Florida needs to account for.

In Game 3, Edmonton’s defencemen were catalysts for two of its goals. The second Edmonton goal in the game came from Philip Broberg, and on goal three a shot from Brett Kulak found Ryan McLeod’s stick for a tip.

For three playoff series in a row, the Oilers were able to shed defenders by forcing them to chase them around the slot, with buttonhooks and interchanges creating chaos and producing space. Those days are over. The Panthers’ switches and man-on-man coverage are so strong on the cycle that Edmonton is best able to probe the interior when it can stretch Florida out.

But the Panthers have also tried to weaponize the aggressiveness of the Oilers’ defencemen. In the second period of Game 3, Aleksander Barkov made it his mission to prey on the Oilers’ forechecking exposure. After getting behind the defence but missing on a rush chance backhand that sailed past the far post, Barkov would get another rush opportunity. Later in the period, Barkov capitalized on Mattias Ekholm pinching near the top of the circle as he sprinted past him to generate a two-on-one.

I originally thought the Oilers might feed the Panthers’ rush with turnovers in the neutral zone, but instead it has been the Oilers’ aggressive forecheck that has been vulnerable to getting beat over the top.

In Game 2, the Panthers’ play was close to unimpeachable in a 4-1 victory. The Oilers got zero high-danger chances at 5-on-5 per naturalstattrick.  The Oilers’ 5-on-5 expected goals was a miniscule .49. And according to Stathletes, the Oilers’ off-the-cycle offence posted one of its worst games of the season.

While Game 3 was a much more uneven performance, the Panthers have continued to effectively bottle up the Oilers’ rush by layering their defence, having their defencemen gap up at the blue line, and by keeping the Oilers to the perimeter. After Game 1, Edmonton has been forced to rely on its cycle and forecheck as primary sources for offence at 5-on-5.

With the rush taken away, a critical option has been removed from Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Zach Hyman’s repertoire. The Oilers have looked to stretch the zone to soften the Panthers’ forecheck, and one wonders if the top players for Edmonton will be more eager to fly the zone to create off the rush like Warren Foegele did in Game 3. If that can’t happen, it reduces the Oilers’ offence to a more simplified approach that saps away the dynamism of some of their top players. If the rush game continues to be nullified, the Oilers’ power play becomes the only outlet for the stars to utilize time and space.

One very simple way to summarize why this series is on the verge of a sweep is goaltending. Bobrovsky’s Goal Saved Above Expected (GSAx) is 5.18. Stuart Skinner’s GSAx is -1.76. While that number for Skinner would suggest he has been a major weakness, the lacuna between the two really exists because Bobrovsky has been ridiculously good. My belief in choosing the unders in this game is heavily predicated on how well Bobrovsky is playing.

According to Stathletes, Bobrovsky has saved 37 of 41 shots from the slot and 19 of 20 from the inner slot. On the power play, as the Panthers have made a concerted effort to take away Hyman as the backdoor option, the Oilers have connected on a few cross-seam passes. And yet, Bobrovsky has been there to save them. Time and again. The Oilers have tested Bobrovsky with seven scoring chances on the man-advantage and have yet to beat him. In structure or out of structure, the Oilers are running out of answers because of Florida’s man between the pipes.

There was always a danger that if the Oilers’ stars dimmed, the team might falter. And when Bobrovsky is playing this well, he doesn’t need much run support. But there is a more subtle story about Florida’s defence worth highlighting.

In back-to-back series, the Panthers have done a marvelous job boxing out two of the best net-front players in the world in Chris Kreider and Hyman. They have stymied the game’s biggest superstars in Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak, Artemi Panarin, and McDavid and Draisaitl. A lot of credit goes to defencemen Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad, but it also speaks to the commitment to checking over 200 feet that this team wins with. In Game 3, Florida didn’t get last change but still thwarted McDavid, Draisaitl, and Hyman.

Florida separates itself by making plays to take away space and unlock space. With the score 3-1, Brandon Montour ran a pick on a zone exit to open up room for Sam Reinhart to retrieve the puck by the boards. It was Reinhart’s pass to Barkov that set up the game-winning goal. The Panthers’ physicality and desire in one-on-one battles over three zones are what complement the likely future Conn Smythe Winner in goal, Bobrovksy.

When the score has been within one goal against the Oilers, the Panthers have a high-danger chances against per 60 minutes of 8.07. As a reference point, the NHL’s best rate during the regular season was 9.02. And the Oilers’ high-danger chances created per hour during the regular season was 15.02.

I’m not sure which team will win on Saturday, but I believe it will be a low-scoring contest. I want the total goals flat line of under 6 and the under 0.5 goals for both Hyman and McDavid.

Picks: U 6 Total Goals (Flat Line) -170, Connor McDavid Total Goals U 0.5 -190, Zach Hyman Total Goals U 0.5 -170