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


The NHL’s current playoff format is a hot topic for debate. Six teams in the Eastern Conference look quite strong, but there are eight eligible spots, with three guaranteed from each division. Therefore, two teams from the East that are arguably not among the best sixteen in the league will get a second life in the playoffs despite an exceedingly mediocre season. Two of this week’s bets are geared around teams deeply enmeshed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and one matchup is between two of the leading contenders for the NHL’s biggest disappointment. 

Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins


On March 8th, Pittsburgh shipped out Jake Guentzel at the trade deadline. The Penguins would go on to lose seven of their next nine contests, and their games were suffused with a sad feeling of squandered opportunity for their wizening Hall of Famers.

Two important things have transpired since that post-Guentzel slide. The Penguins have won five of their last six games with a full-scale commitment to goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. And the rest of the Eastern conference’s postseason eligible teams have cratered.

Pittsburgh is resurrected and winning by multi-goal margins, with recent victories over the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals. But on Saturday, they will face a team who has been one large fireball since the trade deadline: The Tampa Bay Lightning.

At times this season, the Lightning could be caricatured as a one-line team almost wholly dependent on their exceptional power play. But since the deadline, the revitalized Andrei Vasilevskiy is near the top of the league in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Tampa Bay’s 5-on-5 numbers remain so-so, but their expected goals against and high-danger chances against per 60 minutes have improved. Also, the penalty kill is excelling.

On Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens got their best chances off cycle looks, with Tampa Bay sometimes finding itself on the wrong side of the puck. But ultimately, the commitment from a back-checking standpoint is there, and it is allowing the Lightning to use extra possession time to capitalize with quick-ups and speedy neutral-zone regroups. Look no further than Tyler Motte’s play on Brendan Gallagher, which helped catalyze Michael Eyssimont’s goal.

The Penguins won five of their last six, but when you dig into the numbers, the expected goals for and high-danger chances for per hour are icky. While Sidney Crosby has been tremendous, Pittsburgh has also been the beneficiary of some fortunate puck luck, and that is a trend that could come to a screeching halt against Vasilevskiy.

While their defensive numbers have been solid in their last six games, the Penguins have shown vulnerability just this week in their box outs and when sorting out coverage in their own end. It’s also worth underscoring that, on March 28th in their 3-2 win against Columbus, the Penguins surrendered oodles of odd-man rushes. The Penguins’ hallmark this season has been to unravel just when it looks like they might turn a corner.

The Lightning have several paths to victory. Tampa Bay could be outplayed at 5-on-5 and win with special teams. Or Vasilevskiy could carry them to victory. Or the Lightning could continue to receive contributions from different sources of their lineup instead of relying heavily on the Nikita Kucherov trio. If the Lightning bring their same hungry play in all three zones, I think they can triumph on Saturday.

The Lightning will most likely hit a cold spell before the playoffs. But with the Penguins winning three straight and going for their sixth win in seven games (they currently have less wins than the Buffalo Sabres) I am compelled to fade them.

Pick: Lightning Moneyline -114

New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators



Every hockey broadcast has tropes that are endearing for their insight and humor. One of my personal favorites is when the home color analyst talks to someone on the other side to get their scouting report. On Thursday, Randy Moller, the Florida Panthers’ color analyst, shared a gem.

Talking to Jacques Martin before the Panthers pulverized the Senators 6-0, Moller reported that the Ottawa coach opined that “the Senators need to learn how to play defensively away from the puck.” This is a hilarious observation from an interim coach who 49 games ago was unquestionably tasked with solving this problem. Message to employer: Your eyes do not deceive you. I did not clean up the mess you explicitly asked me to address.

It is important to view the Senators through this lens. All successes are quickly erased with a string of losses. Ottawa has had five streaks of three or more wins this season, including a season-best, five-game win streak to end March. The Senators had followed up the earlier streaks with three three-game losing streaks and one two-game losing streak. In February and March, a two-game win streak was followed by a seven-game losing streak.

What is striking about these examples is that the defeats have come in regulation and often by multiple goals. When things are good, Ottawa can rip off several wins. When they are bad, things tend to snowball. This is why Saturday’s matchup with New Jersey is fascinating in a reality televisionish way.

The Devils can commiserate with the Senators’ sense of disappointment from unfulfilled expectations. There were hopes of a possible Stanley Cup run to build off New Jersey’s second-round appearance last year. Instead, goaltending has played a large role in torpedoing the Devils’ season. Coach Lindy Ruff got fired, and now interim coach Travis Green is behind the bench and Jake Allen is in goal. And the Devils are mired in a three-game losing streak, having blown leads in each game.

Saturday’s game plan is clear for the Devils. The Senators’ goaltending is atrocious, giving New Jersey an unusual emphatic edge in goaltending. Ottawa goaltender Joonas Korpisalo has the worst GSAx in the NHL, and alternative Anton Forsberg ranks in the top ten worst. The Devils should look to pour on shots when they are on the forecheck and cycle.

The Devils want to use their speed to spread Ottawa out and retrieve the puck for extended offensive zone time. This is especially important because it prevents New Jersey from defending in its own end.  

Ottawa can be reckless when carrying the puck up the ice, and its forecheckers are not always the most conscientious in terms of getting back in transition defence. Opportunities should present themselves for the Devils if they make an effort to gap up and utilize three-to-four-man attacks. As fast as the Devils are when charging up the ice, and as good as they are at making east-west passes, they are proficient at using the first wave to push back the defence to open up room for the second layer of attack. Against Ottawa, it is uncertain they will receive any back pressure.

As poorly as this season has gone for the Devils, they have not lost more than three games in a row all season. I think New Jersey blends its speed on the rush and forecheck to terrorize the Senators on Saturday.

Pick: Devils Moneyline -118

Nashville Predators at New York Islanders


April is a month of angst for many teams and both the Predators and Islanders are feeling it, albeit for different reasons.

The Predators played nearly flawless hockey for close to 20 games in March. But they have lost three of their last four contests, and their win against St. Louis on Thursday night hardly inspired confidence. In the end, the Preds managed to overcome puck management miscues thanks to goaltender Juusse Saros and their power play.

The glass-half-full outlook for the Islanders is that they are on a three-game win streak and in the thick of the playoff race. The glass-half-empty outlook is that they just eked by the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets in the last two games; if they had played more consistent hockey, their postseason berth would a fait accompli.

Even though Saturday’s game is more important for the Islanders since a postseason berth is uncertain, I believe the Predators’ moneyline is the move because Nashville is a bad matchup for New York.

It’s unlikely the Islanders’ strategy will deviate much from what they did against the Blue Jackets on Thursday. They will use the low-to-high play, bring a forward high to the point, look to push the puck in transition, and create offence from their defensemen stepping up. Tune into the Islanders for a period against the right opponent and they can look quite effective.

But imposing these tactics on Nashville may be quite difficult. The Predators gap up well and force their opponents to chip it deep. Saros is a skilled puck-handler, so the Islanders must place the puck well to avoid an easy breakout.  If it isn’t, Nashville could be charging with three or four skaters on a rush look the other way.

The Blues did a really nice job on their puck placement on Thursday, and Nashville had trouble sorting out its defence around the net after the initial turnover from the first St. Louis forechecker. But if the Islanders can’t generate a turnover this way, it could get dicey because the Predators are awfully hard to score on when they have time to orient themselves.

Nashville shuts down the slot effectively. The Predators layer for shot-blocks and collapse into the middle, forcing their opponents to the perimeter. Can the Islanders avoid a hand-out to Saros on their dump-ins? Can they achieve a clean entry against the Predators and open up the slot? I’m not so sure.

I think the Predators will be looking to play a simpler game. In his in-game ESPN interview, coach Andrew Brunette lamented about the puck management miscues and his team moving away from its preferred style of play. For Saturday, I expect Nashville to get the puck behind the net and jam it toward the slot. If I’m the Islanders’ defence, I am getting the ice bags ready because Nashville can bring the hammer on the forecheck.

Looking at the Predators’ last two months in expected goals for per 60 minutes, they rank third best in the NHL. In high-danger chances against per hour, they rank eighth best in the league.

The Islanders’ underlying numbers have been strong of late too, but they are more favourable pertaining to their defensive prowess. Add in the fact that goaltender Ilya Sorokin has been shaky since March 1st and Saros has been better on the season, and I think Nashville has too many ways to come out of Saturday with a victory.

Pick: Predators Moneyline -110