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

Ottawa Senators Brady Tkachuk - The Canadian Press

At this time of year, the silver bullet for all problems is the forecheck. Need to slow down a faster team and play a low-scoring game? Grind the opponent down with the forecheck. Looking to recapture the halcyon days when the team was dominating board battles and playing an aggressive north-south game? Lean on the forecheck. Trying to mask a defensive group that is depleted because multiple minute-crunchers were shipped off at the trade deadline? You guessed it. The forecheck is the solution. This week, I’m looking at two underdog puck lines and one moneyline where success is predicated on the forecheck.

Ottawa Senators at New Jersey Devils

Saturday March 23 – 7:00 PM ET

When anthropomorphizing the Ottawa Senators, they are best characterized as a tough hang. They squander their potential and perennially disappoint you. They are consistently fickle. A new boss replaces the old one, but their work product remains underwhelming. And yet, despite getting outscored 18-6 in their last three games, I think they can beat the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

Since coach Jacques Martin took over, the Senators rank in the top ten in expected goals created and in high-danger chances created per 60 minutes. Martin has preached better structure to overcome the Senators’ dreadful, leaky goaltending. It hasn’t worked. But even in their loss on Thursday to the St. Louis Blues, flickers of possibility shimmered. Mathieu Joseph scored a counterattack goal by keeping his positioning in the neutral zone. Ottawa ginned up scoring chances from its defencemen joining the attack, with slick puck movement off the rush, and with its five-man rotation.

On Saturday, Ottawa will need to use the forecheck to throw sand in the gears of the Devils’ transition. New Jersey is skilled at driving the center lane to open up the seam pass through the second layer. The Devils are awfully hard to contain when they can achieve controlled zone exits, as the neutral zone becomes a springboard for their speed.

Against St. Louis, Ottawa gave up goals due to lackadaisical backchecking and poor boxing out. The Senators can only beat the Devils by making it a sack race, not a 100-meter dash.

Against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, the Devils completely dominated large swathes of the game and exhibited airtight defence. But that hasn’t been the norm, even after their coaching change.  

The Devils can be bullied around the crease. They are vulnerable to a bad read or a lazy checking effort. If the Senators can initiate their cycle, they can also use their weapons on the back end to hurt New Jersey, as the Devils are known to sag off the skaters at the point and overload the bottom half of the zone. Ottawa will want to stretch them out and open up passes into the slot.

The quickest way for Ottawa to get crushed is by giving New Jersey power-play opportunities. Ottawa’s penalty kill is atrocious (second worst in the league). The Devils have the10th-best power play, and looked fearsome against Winnipeg, recording three on the man advantage.

In 25 of 42 games since Martin took over as head coach, the Senators have either won or stayed within a goal. During that stretch of games, the Senators have lost in overtime against Stanley Cup contenders like the Jets, the Boston Bruins, and the Florida Panthers. They have beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs twice. Ottawa has the personnel to play with very talented teams like New Jersey.

And while the Devils appear to have solved their biggest issue—goaltending—Jake Allen will have his fourth start in eight days if he is in the net Saturday. That is a big uptick in usage after being in a three-man rotation in Montreal. I think the Senators rebound after losing three straight games by multiple goals and keep this game close enough to possibly win.

Pick: Senators Puck line (+1.5) -176

Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks

Saturday March 23 – 10:00 PM ET

The return from injury of the Flames’ Jacob Markstrom adds an intriguing dimension to this game. Not that long ago, this contest would have been dubbed a goaltending duel between two of the league’s best in Markstrom and Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko. As of this writing, the two rank second and third respectively in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). But Demko is out for the next few weeks, with backup Casey DeSmith playing in his stead. DeSmith is a solid backup, but he isn’t Demko.

As is their wont, I fully expect the Flames to fight fire with fire. The Canucks will want to play with pace and win with an aggressive forecheck. As it happens, that is how Calgary wants to play too. Despite trading away Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev, and Noah Hanifin at the deadline, Calgary still fields a roster that can stretch the ice and deliver a layered attack. The Canucks gap up extremely well, so I fully anticipate the Flames relying more on flip passes and place-and-chase in lieu of controlled entries to limit high-risk plays that can be turned into a Canucks counterattack. But will it work?  

The Canucks’ greatest strength is their ability to forecheck and cycle the puck. This team rotates and retrieves the puck so well that finding a way to wrestle back possession is daunting. The numbers suggest that Vancouver’s play has dramatically improved. From October through January, the Canucks were right around the middle of the pack in expected goals and high-danger chances percentage. But in the last two months, their numbers have sharply risen. In expected goals, the Canucks rank fourth in the NHL; in high-danger chances, they rank second.

When the Canucks are humming, advancing the puck against them is a headache. But there appears to be a blueprint for the Flames to pull an upset. Markstrom needs to be stellar, and the Flames must use their speed to execute a zippy breakout, preventing extended sessions of chasing in their own end.

In the offensive zone, I expect the Flames to manufacture goals through shot volume and a lot of motion. The Canucks have a few blueliners, like Nikita Zadorov or Tyler Myers, who can be exposed by Calgary’s interchanges and speed off the rush.

The Flames’ trade deadline moves were important for the long-term but left them with a strange hodgepodge of players for the remainder of the year. Yet, credit to coach Ryan Huska, it oddly works. And at goaltender they have a clear advantage on Saturday. In the last twelve Markstrom appearances, the Flames have won eight of twelve games.

While the Canucks’ underlying numbers are strong, they haven’t exactly been shredding teams, only winning by two or more goals in three of their last 15 games. Calgary may come away victorious, but I’ll take them on the (+1.5) puck line so I don’t need to sweat an overtime loss.

Pick: Flames Puck line (+1.5) -164

Tampa Bay Lightning at Los Angeles Kings

Saturday March 23 – 10:30 PM ET

No one takes the San Jose Sharks seriously, and it nearly cost the Lightning on Thursday night. Through two periods, the Sharks had more slot shots and high-danger chances, but the game was tied 1-1 because Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had made several huge saves. Tampa Bay would pull away and win 4-1, its fifth straight victory. I think the Lightning’s win streak comes to a screeching halt on Saturday.

When the Kings replaced Todd McLellan, the message from new coach Jim Hiller was unmistakable: We need to get back to Kings hockey. A more direct style with less east-west passes. Embracing the board battles and play in the corners by applying an aggressive forecheck. And you know what? It’s working.

The defensive advanced stats are awesome under Hiller. Both Cam Talbot and David Rittich rank in the top ten among goaltenders in Goal Saved Above Expected (GSAx) with ten or more games played. Only five teams have more regulation or overtime wins than Los Angeles since Hiller took over. Los Angeles hasn’t quite squeezed out everything it was hoping from its forwards this season, but its scoring by committee has worked well enough. And on Saturday, there are reasons to believe Los Angeles matches up very well against Tampa Bay.

The Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov line can be brilliant. The talent level is undeniable, and, when Kucherov leads an entry, his wizardry with the puck is magical. But Los Angeles is home and will have last change, so that Lightning line will get a steady dose of Phillip Danault, Kevin Fiala, and Trevor Moore. Despite extremely tough usage, they have a +6 goal differential and a +42 high-danger chances differential.

Also, the Kucherov line, for all its glamour, can be a liability, whether by failing to cover the pinching defenceman and allowing an odd-man rush or by a lazy effort sorting out coverage in its own end. The Danault line forechecks and drives the net with gusto, and it preys on sloppiness.

And if the Lightning don’t get production from the Point line, they become almost entirely dependent on their power play for victory. The Lightning are the best in the league on the man advantage and, given their suspect 5-on-5 numbers, would love to force this game into a match decided by special teams. Tampa Bay can really struggle on breakouts and in killing plays in its own end, and the Kings’ forecheck should have ample opportunity to create turnovers off a wobbly Lightning defensive group.

One potential source of offence for Los Angeles is the counterattack. The Kings use a 1-3-1 in the neutral zone, but Tampa Bay’s forwards like to push toward the far blue line and maroon their defencemen in their own end. The expectation is that they will connect on a stretch pass or skate the puck out. The Sharks used this strategic decision to their advantage, creating chances aplenty from Lightning defencemen making bad passes from their end. Los Angeles could generate rush chances off takeaways and force the Lightning to try to advance the puck up ice by using short passes.

Los Angeles’s playing style is a bad matchup for the Lightning. The Kings’ team defence could potentially neutralize any Lightning advantage afforded by a recent Vasilevskiy hot streak. And the Lightning are too reliant on their power play and on the Kucherov-Point line. I love the Kings’ moneyline.

Pick: Kings Moneyline -132