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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets on Hurricanes and Avalanche

Sebastian Aho Jake Guentzel Carolina Hurricanes Sebastian Aho Jake Guentzel - The Canadian Press

The first round of the NHL playoffs was wildly entertaining but didn’t have much shock value. It turns out that the head-scratching and gasping would come in the second round, which thus far has not been short on surprises.

The Carolina Hurricanes, wildly believed to be a Stanley Cup favorite, are on life support. The Colorado Avalanche only seem to turn on the switch after they trail by three goals. Hockey is never boring, and the playoffs are always a roller coaster. Below are my bets for Saturday (and beyond).

New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes

Saturday May 11 – 7:00 PM ET

The acquisition of star forward Jake Guentzel was supposed to be a correction for Carolina after standing pat during last season’s trade deadline. In the 2023 playoffs, the Hurricanes were ousted by the Florida Panthers in large part because their scoring dried up. Guentzel would be the remedy in 2024, the catalyst who brought the Hurricanes to the final playoff round. In theory, this made sense.

It hasn’t worked out that way. In fact, the last several days have been a cruel disappointment. Once again, the Hurricanes trail a series 3-0. Yet again, they are facing a white-hot goaltender. Once more, the Hurricanes can’t win in overtime. The start to the Hurricanes’ summer is imminent, but will it be Saturday? I think Carolina staves off humiliation, at least temporarily. Here are three reasons I believe the Hurricanes will win Game 4.

In my series preview, I thought the special teams battle would be a draw, with neither team having a decisive edge. I was wrong. While the Hurricanes were top two in the NHL during the regular season in power play and penalty kill and the Rangers ranked third in both categories, special teams are playing a large role in this series, with the Rangers using them as cudgels to batter the Hurricanes.

Still, while awash in bad vibes, the man advantage may be trending in a more positive direction for Carolina. In Games 1 and 2, the Hurricanes generated a combined nine scoring chances on ten power-play opportunities. But in Game 2, they had twice as many power play scoring chances as they did in Game 1, and in Game 3, they generated ten scoring chances on five power plays.

Sure, better chances have yielded zero goals, but right now Carolina has recorded 21 shots without breaking through. At some point, that puck luck should turn, and I see that being in Game 4.

The Hurricanes have been criticized for valuing shot volume over shot quality. And it is true: While Carolina has a +26 shots differential at 5-on-5, the Rangers have the edge in inner slot shots and expected goals. Perhaps, one could posit, the Hurricanes’ approach utilizes a lot of energy without much to show for it.

But that is a bit simplistic. Carolina has found different mechanisms through the series to obtain quality looks, albeit not as frequently as one would like. It hasn’t strictly been shot attempts leading to broken plays with the rare good look. Carolina has looked effective on the rush, especially when employing the give-and-go. Martin Necas has been especially dangerous racing up ice and using his teammate as a springboard for a rush chance.

In Game 1, Necas broke through the Rangers’ 1-3-1 for a chance off the rush and buried it. The Rangers’ 1-3-1 hasn’t had many slipups, but one would love to see Carolina try to get behind the Rangers three across with some bump plays and post-ups in the neutral zone to try to find more quality looks in transition. While this could lead to turnovers in the middle of the ice, this is a gamble Carolina should take, given how well the Rangers have defended on the cycle.

While some of Carolina’s faltering is self-inflicted, it shouldn’t be ignored that Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin has been phenomenal, boasting an outrageous 5.08 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) through the first three games.

The Rangers are doing an excellent job sealing the slot, which has forced the Hurricanes to the perimeter. But one way Carolina has gotten pucks past Shesterkin has been with tips. Tips come in all varieties, and one thing the Hurricanes need more of is fly-by tips.

The Hurricanes should expect the Rangers to continue to shut down passes and plays into the interior. But more engineered actions on the cycle with Guentzel, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen swooping into the slot could provide a chance  to tip a shot past Shesterkin. In Game 1, Jaccob Slavin’s weird goal that took a funny hop should reinforce that the shot doesn’t have to be hard to evade Shesterkin. If time and space in the slot aren’t there, create quality shots from a more rapid release. You could call it the Tylenol offensive strategy.

The Rangers have won seven straight playoff games! Their special teams are crushing the Hurricanes. Shesterkin looks close to unbeatable. It is a scary time to fade New York.

But maintaining this level of play without blemish is nearly impossible. At some point New York will misstep and getting Carolina at home after three straight losses is the way to go.

Pick: Hurricanes Moneyline -160

Dallas Stars at Colorado Avalanche

Saturday May 11 – 10:00 PM ET

From the viewpoint of the Avalanche, there is a glass half full and glass half empty way to view the first two games of their series against Dallas. The glass half full sounds like this: At 5-on-5 when the score is within one goal, Colorado has the advantage in expected goals percentage and high-danger chances.

Splitting the first two games in Dallas, after trailing by three goals or more in both, is extraordinarily fortunate. Furthermore, the Avs’ biggest perceived weakness, goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, currently ranks ahead of his counterpart, Jake Oettinger, in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Colorado is fantastic at home, and now they have a chance to win consecutive games and go back to Dallas with a 3-1 lead.

The glass half empty outlook is more succinct. The Stars have shown glimmers of being the deeper team. They have exhibited a more versatile offensive attack, and if they can create off their forecheck and deny the Avs clean entries and power-play chances, the Stars probably win the series.

Dallas climbed back from a nearly insurmountable 0-2 series hole in Round 1 by stringing together two wins on the road. Still, winning in Colorado will be a tall order. When the Avs play at Ball Arena, they are gangbusters. Counting the playoffs, Colorado is 33-9-1 at home this season. And for Avs coach Jared Bednar, having the last change will allow him to exploit desired matchups. Or duck undesirable ones.

Through the first two games, Avalanche superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen haven’t exactly been contained, but they also haven’t gone nuclear. In nearly 35 minutes of 5-on-5 play, they have a +2 shot differential and have accounted for one goal. Stars coach Peter DeBoer has tried to shadow them with the Esa Lindell and Chris Tanev shutdown pairing, but that could change on Saturday should Bednar choose.

The Avs’ success on Saturday and in this series is predicated on the rush, especially with the MacKinnon line. The Stars are quite good at defending on the cycle and exiting their zone, but they are just as vulnerable as the Jets were to Colorado’s layered attack, which so effectively finds the open man.

The Stars’ chances on Saturday depend on puck management and their forecheckers not getting beat up ice. On the cycle, the Avs can be bullied, pushed around, and exposed on box-outs through a grinding, ugly game. The Stars’ forecheck and finding the right dial of aggressiveness will be critical.

The Avs can kill you with their three- and four-man attack, with their mobile defencemen able to jump into the rush and turn an opponent’s cycle on its end as two or three forecheckers on the opposing side get caught beneath the puck. Sometimes a Colorado rush needs only the smallest kindling. How Dallas pressures on the forecheck, and how deep its forecheckers are willing to sink, will be essential to providing the Stars’ defencemen with the confidence to gap up.

I want the Avs at home every chance I get and will happily grab them to win the series as well because I believe they have the opportunity to break this wide open by taking the next two in Colorado.

Picks: Avalanche moneyline -134 and Avalanche to win the series -113