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Intelligent Hockey: Three bets to consider for Saturday's slate

Tyler Bertuzzi Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Matheson Montreal Canadiens Tyler Bertuzzi Mike Matheson - The Canadian Press

With the trade deadline having passed, the focus shifts to making the best use of the limited time left in the regular season. Contenders want to evaluate their new personnel and try to determine how they best fit within the squad. Franchises without playoff dreams are evaluating what currently works on their rosters and looking toward the future.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, and Columbus Blue Jackets, no additional games will be played after the 82nd contest. But even without postseason hopes, there is value in each team’s game this Saturday.


Nashville Predators at Columbus Blue Jackets

Saturday March 9 – 12:30 PM ET

The reason to snag the Predators’ moneyline on Saturday is refreshingly simple. You may assume it is because Nashville is white hot, having won nine of its last ten games and featuring one of the hottest goaltenders in the league in Juuse Saros. That is nice, but the big reason to love Nashville in this game is its opponent.

Columbus has won consecutive games three times this season, and twice the Chicago Blackhawks were one of their opponents. Now, having shocked the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night 4-2, the Blue Jackets are going for their fourth win in five games, which would be a new experience for them this season. To achieve this outcome, they would have to beat one of the best road teams in the NHL. I don’t see it.

The Predators had an impressive 4-2 victory in their last outing against a quietly competitive Buffalo Sabres team. The Predators’ pressure on the forecheck on Thursday had the Sabres coughing up pucks on their breakout and struggling to advance the puck up ice.

The Predators doubled the Sabres in high-danger chances at 5-on-5, and the Nashville defencemen pinching in to open up the slot and stepping up to hold the blue line proved to be a fount of offence. Also, Filip Forsberg was predictably fantastic. Nashville at its best blends pace and physicality.

All this should prove challenging for Columbus. The Blue Jackets struggle on zone exits and their defence is easily disoriented should they surrender the puck. Even this far into the season, it is not uncommon to see their opponent outnumber the Blue Jackets skaters in the bottom half of the zone because of a bad defensive read. (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins missed an opportunity off such a blunder on Thursday night.) Nashville likes to attack in waves, and the Blue Jackets’ transition defence can be generously described as spotty.

If the Blue Jackets win, it will be because Nashville sat Saros and the Columbus forecheck was effective enough to mask the team’s very leaky defence. And while the Blue Jackets’ defensive numbers are atrocious, they do have enough offensive talent to make it a hard-fought contest.

Columbus should look to employ a tactic that Buffalo used with some success against Nashville on Thursday: switching sides in the offensive zone. Bowen Byram nearly had two goals off the weak side because the Predators clog the middle and will shade toward the puck. The Blue Jackets have players at forward and defence who can capitalize on that vulnerability.

Still, the Blue Jackets lose almost two-thirds of their games. Nashville is better and has a lot at stake with a playoff berth in the balance. The Predators’ moneyline is low-hanging fruit that I will happily take.

Pick: Predators Moneyline -154


Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins

Saturday March 9 – 3:00 PM ET

There is pathos in Sidney Crosby’s noble effort to overcome the inevitable ossifying of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. This season, he has once again submitted a spectacular effort in hopes of buoying his team to the playoffs and possibly a Stanley Cup run. His comrades have lost a step; he has not.

Now, his longtime partner Jake Guentzel has been moved to the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh’s run is clearly up. The culprits for the demise this season are widespread: the power play foundering, lack of secondary scoring, off-season acquisitions that have curdled. (Ryan Graves currently has a 0 net rating and Reilly Smith has a +3.)

Watching the Penguins can be a source of cognitive dissonance. They can control play and generate chances (underscored by their above average 5-on-5 expected goals and high-danger chances), but still find ways to lose. Thursday night was an especially embarrassing display as their longtime rivals, the Washington Capitals, pasted them 6-0.

But on an underdog puck line (+1.5), there are reasons to love Pittsburgh on the road against Boston. The Pens have lost by two or more goals only 16 times in 61 games this season. The Bruins looked awesome against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, beating up on their divisional foe with their forecheck and tenacious puck retrieval. But that was one game and, since the beginning of 2024, Boston’s defence has been iffy.

Since Jan. 1, only eight teams are allowing more shots against at 5-on-5 than Boston. In expected goals against per hour over the span, Boston has a slightly better metric than the Anaheim Ducks. In high-danger chances against, the Bruins rank seventh worst. Boston has surrendered two goals or fewer in their last three games, but since Feb. 15, the Bruins have allowed four or more goals six times.

With Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman playing on Thursday night, one would expect Saturday’s starter to be Linus Ullmark, who has nearly identical numbers in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) to Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry. In 2024, these two goaltenders’ GSAx is almost identical.

Boston is a top-five team in goals against, but Pittsburgh ranks in the top 10. If the Penguins are going to keep this game close, they’ll need to minimize turnovers (they had some ghastly giveaways in the neutral zone and on clean entries against Washington), play a direct game by getting the puck below the goal line, and try to break down the Bruins’ layers with their forecheck.

The Penguins have lost by three or more goals this season eight times. In the following game, they have won or lost by one goal six times. There is enough skill and pride on the roster for the Penguins to stay competitive. With the game nationally televised, I think Pittsburgh has a chance to win or force overtime.

Pick: Penguins Puck line (+1.5) -172


Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens

Saturday March 9 – 7:00 PM ET

On paper, the Maple Leafs should trounce the Canadiens. Toronto has far more talent and this is true even with the potential absence of Matthew Knies. But even though betting Montreal as the underdog puck line might be bad for your teeth (be prepared to grind them), it should be good for your wallet.

The Canadiens have lost by two or more goals in only 19 of 63 games this season. And they are playing a Toronto team that has won by two or more goals only 18 times in 63 games. The Maple Leafs can play down to their opponent while the Habs can punch above their weight. If the Canadiens can avoid playing too much of the game in a defensive posture, they can pull an upset.

Montreal relies on its top players to deliver, and fortunately Nick Suzuki is playing outstanding hockey right now. He has six multi-point games since the All-Star break and is poised to be a point-per-game player this season. He is impacting games over 200 feet, which helps anchor his linemates’ defensive deficiencies.

In Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s player net rating, Suzuki ranks above Mika Zibanejad this season and right below Brayden Point and Mathew Barzal. Suzuki is a force on par with the best of the East, and the Canadiens’ chances generated at 5-on-5 and on the power play against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday typify his influence.

Toronto and Montreal will both look to slow this game down to avoid high-risk plays and putting their defences under extra stress. Toronto is one of the most creative teams in the NHL at opening up the slot, and the Canadiens are one of the worst teams in the NHL in forecheck chances allowed. The Hurricanes had success generating offence off faceoffs against the Habs and were able to twist up Montreal when they activated their defencemen. And yet, Montreal kept the game at 1-1 deep into the third period.

To win, Montreal will need its defencemen to be a positive catalyst. The Canadiens count on their defencemen to step up in the neutral zone to force dump-ins and expect them to find their forwards in the slot for tips.

When the Canadiens close on their opponent quickly and take away their space, their second and third lines can engineer a few rush chances off turnovers. The Canadiens can pop with a quick-strike attack. Even a defensive team as strong as Carolina yielded a few good looks this way.

The quickest way for Montreal to lose is by giving Toronto power-play chances. If the Canadiens can stay disciplined (a big if), they can keep the game close at 5-on-5. With Jake Allen, who has been their worst goaltending option, traded to New Jersey, the Canadiens have two different goalies who can steal this game.

After being sizzling hot, the Maple Leafs have looked more listless in their last two contests. I could see Montreal shocking them on Saturday, but will seize on the underdog puck line to factor in the prospect of an extra-time defeat.

Pick: Canadiens Puck line (+1.5) -138