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

Patrick Roy New York Islanders Patrick Roy - The Canadian Press

The end is near. With so little time remaining, every team is looking to end the regular season on a high note. If you’re making it to the playoffs, like the Dallas Stars or Tampa Bay Lightning, you want to be hitting your postseason form. If you’re the New York Islanders, your chance of making it to the dance depends on winning every game from here on out while your peers falter. For those teams already eliminated, or soon to be, this is a time to explore possibilities for the 2024-25 season via call-ups or by giving depth players more opportunity. The stakes are different, but each team has something to play for. I orient my bets accordingly.


Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the bedrock of the Lightning’s Cup runs, but with an injury sidelining him for the first quarter of the season, Tampa Bay’s postseason chances seemed shaky in a deeper Eastern Conference. Winning only nine of their first 20 games, Tampa Bay found themselves in a hole when their spectacular goaltender returned in late November.

But something strange unfolded over the next 52 games. The Lightning went 31-19-2 despite Vasilevskiy playing poorly. How bad has he been? Only five goaltenders with 30 or more starts have a worse Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Vasilevskiy hasn’t been himself, but the Lightning, under the direction of the criminally underappreciated Jon Cooper, have once again refashioned themselves into a potent team as the playoffs approach.

On Wednesday against Boston, the Lightning’s forwards and defencemen were synchronized, working together for clean entries and smart puck placement on dump-ins that allowed the forecheckers to make plays.

Earlier in the season, Tampa Bay struggled with turnovers in its own zone that quickly led to scoring chances and goals. On Wednesday, Matt Dumba was responsible for a similar type of play, which led to the Bruins’ only goal. For the most part, though, the Bolts’ puck management and gaps were impressive.

With the Islanders arriving at Amalie Arena on Saturday having lost seven of their last nine games, one might imagine that the Lightning will be positioned to coast to a relaxing victory. But I don’t see things unfolding that way.

Just under three weeks ago it looked like the Islanders were going to make the playoffs and salvage a roller-coaster season. But a six-game losing streak put them in a potentially insurmountable hole. In those six defeats, New York’s inner slot shots, high-danger chances, and expected goals plummeted. Five times, the Islanders surrendered four or more goals. You don’t need to be a hockey expert to understand that a team’s offence and defence cratering simultaneously is going to seriously decrease the chances of victory.

But since Patrick Roy took over as head coach, there have been glimmers of hope that shouldn’t be overlooked because of the recent losing streak. Under Roy, the Islanders are trying to cede less room to their opponent, and this is borne out in the numbers. Under Roy, the Islanders rank first in high-danger chances against and are top five in expected goals against at 5-on-5.

Before Roy, clean entries were a freebie for adversaries as the New York defencemen routinely backpedaled and forfeited the blue line. Of course, as the Islanders’ defencemen would surely note, lack of forward support in tracking back played a role.

But things have changed. New York’s blueliners are stepping up and taking a more aggressive posture at the blue lines and in the neutral zone, and they are getting help, with their forwards cutting off opponents’ time and room when they try to advance the puck up ice.

If the Islanders can keep this game at 5-on-5, they can win because Tampa Bay’s offence is highly reliant on its exceptional power play while the Islanders have the NHL’s worst penalty kill. If New York can stay out of the box, it can turn Saturday’s matchup into a low-event game spent in the Lightning’s defensive zone.

Tight-checking hockey from New York will surely yield several counterattack looks due to the Lightning feeding the Islanders’ rush. For all his brilliance, Nikita Kucherov, can be an excellent catalyst for an opponent’s counterattack.

New York’s playoff hopes rest on stringing together wins with almost no margin for error. I think the Islanders produce a valiant effort against the Lightning, and at worst they lose in a one-goal game. Although pricey, I love them for the underdog puck line (+1.5).

Pick: Islanders Puck line (+1.5) -184


Against the Penguins on Thursday night, the Blue Jackets finished with two goals on 19 shots and lost 3-2. The box score may appear like Pittsburgh clamped down on a reeling Columbus team that is very injured and cycling in plenty of AHLers. But that isn’t what happened at all.

The Penguins’ defence was so porous it almost seemed like an act of defiance, like when my two-year-old son doesn’t want to pick up his toys.  It was called “leaky” by the Pittsburgh announcers. The Penguins’ puck management was ghastly and their back-checking virtually non-existent. The Blue Jackets had numerous odd-man rushes, but converted on only one of them.

Make no mistake, Columbus isn’t good, and the roster it’s trotting out currently has enough new faces that some may be unfamiliar even to hockey diehards. But Pittsburgh being a heavy favorite against any team not located in San Jose suggests it is being graded on potential rather than output. The Blue Jackets lost their sixth straight on Thursday night, but I think they can end their losing streak against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Blue Jackets struggled most against the Penguins on the forecheck and cycle. Columbus would get hemmed in its end and sometimes lose its coverage. Pittsburgh can use a lot of motion and defencemen Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson will aggressively pinch. But at a cost.

The Penguins’ roving defencemen and back-checking-averse forwards gave the Blue Jackets unbelievable scoring chances because they would completely sell out to keep the puck in the offensive zone at the risk of leaving one defender back manning the blue line. If the Blue Jackets keep the Penguins to the perimeter and out of the middle slightly more, and if they avail themselves of the flip pass when the shift is long, they can turn their biggest weakness (defending) into a big-play trigger when the Penguins overreach. The Penguins’ biggest enemy can be themselves (and their blithe indifference to any form of defence).

The one even-strength goal the Blue Jackets allowed was off a rush chance where they got caught beneath the puck. And while Columbus’s gaps were soft, they did a solid job containing Pittsburgh on the rush for the most part. Ultimately, the Penguins won off their two power-play goals.

The game is not at PPG Paints Arena and the Penguins have a woeful 12-17-6 record on the road. Additionally, Pittsburgh goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic starting has been a great omen for the opposition all season. 

It is highly possible to imagine a scenario where the Blue Jackets create more off the forecheck on Saturday and use the additional offensive zone time from that to nullify the Penguins’ offence from the cycle and forecheck. Pittsburgh’s defensive group is rickety, and the top six for Columbus still has forwards who can put the puck in the net.

The Blue Jackets never beat the Penguins, so history suggests taking the puck line for insurance in the event Columbus loses in extra time.

Pick: Blue Jackets Puck line (+1.5) -154


In a few months we may be honoring the Stars as the league’s Stanley Cup champions. If they win, it will be a testament to Dallas’s unique blend of veterans and young guys. The Stars have a roster that can beat you with its speed racing up the ice or with its jam around the net. Few NHL teams can detonate their adversary with an explosive offence, but also shift gears and win a low scoring, grinding affair.

Yet, despite a versatile roster, a great team can still stub its toes due to the caprices of a long regular season. And I think the Seattle Kraken are poised to end the Stars’ six-game win streak.

If the Kraken are going to win, it will be because of the play of their forecheckers. On Thursday, Dallas eked out a victory against the Vancouver Canucks, but Vancouver kept the Stars’ offence in check by neutralizing Dallas’s transition game.

In Roman myth, Janus has one face on the future and one on the past. Seattle’s F2 and F3 will need to balance impacting offence while not sacrificing defence against Dallas.

On Thursday, the Canucks’ F3 was critical at picking off and disrupting passes on the Stars’ breakout. When Dallas is in its defensive posture, it layers very well and is hard to generate offence against. But short-circuit the Stars’ breakout and their defensive coverage will be left scrambling to sort out coverage.

Dallas will also overload on the puck in its own end, leaving open the weak side. The Kraken should look to utilize the bottom of the zone and behind the net as a point of attack and try to move around their F3 to open up slot shots. The Kraken are comfortable doing this, as the Ty Kartye game-winner Thursday night came from the high slot.

At the same time, the second and third Kraken forecheckers have to avoid getting caught too deep, because the Stars can shred opponents with a three-or-four-man rush attack. The Kraken need their forwards to be choking off the transition, giving their defencemen comfort to step up and deny the entry.  

The Kraken will lean on their goaltending and team defence to keep this game close. They are top ten in the NHL in goals against, and they rank in the top six in 5-on-5 expected goals against and high-danger chances against. With Philipp Grubauer getting the start on Thursday, Joey Daccord should get the nod on Saturday, and his GSAx is vastly better than Jake Oettinger’s on the year.

Seattle has a lot of speed, but against Anaheim on Thursday they saw failed rush chances result in too many one-and-done’s. That can’t happen against the Stars. The Kraken have talent on their roster and need to be shrewder with puck management and faster on retrievals, or else they will in trouble.

As good as they are, the Stars have won by two or more goals in only 25 of their 74 games this season. Dallas is comfortable in one-score games and plays a lot of them. The Kraken’s roadmap to victory is winning with defence and keeping it close. For that reason, I like them at the underdog puck line (+1,5).

Pick: Kraken Puck line (+1.5) -172