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

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Buffalo Sabres Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen - The Canadian Press

If the NHL regular season is like airplane travel, we’re approaching the time when the final “ding” sounds signaling that we have landed and can start our fun. We’ve nearly arrived at our destination, the NHL playoffs, and the expectations for what lies ahead are high.

While you wait for the rows ahead of you to deplane, you must double-check your surroundings. Carry-on bag? Check. Pretzel crumbs cleaned up from the in-flight snack? Check. Wallet, cellphone, airpods? Check, check, and check. This weekend, we’re doing our final due diligence for the upcoming festivities.

New York Islanders at New York Rangers, Saturday April 13 – 12:30 PM ET

The New York Islanders refuse to go away, although, it has been bumpy ride. They fired coach Lane Lambert and proceeded to lose three of their next four games under his replacement, Patrick Roy.

In early March, hopes understandably rose as the Islanders ripped off a six-game win streak. However, these were quickly dashed by the six-game losing streak that followed. By blowing leads in so many third periods, the Islanders added necessary levity to a long NHL regular season.

At the trade deadline, the Islanders blinked and did nothing, much to the confusion of the greater hockey community. But now, despite all logic, the Islanders are positioned to make the playoffs, having won six straight and all the while supplanting their Vezina Trophy-nominated goaltender, Ilya Sorokin, with Semyon Varlamov.

While the Islanders are surging despite a roller-coaster season, the Rangers are looking to finish off a spectacular regular season and avoid their first three-game losing streak since January.

For skeptics of the Blueshirts, the last two games have given substance to their credulity. The Rangers rely heavily on their power-play and goaltending to lift them to victory. But against the Islanders on Tuesday and against the Flyers on Thursday, the Rangers allowed four goals and scored zero even-strength goals. As it turns out, substandard goaltending and being limited to strictly power-play goals equal losing hockey.

Furthermore, the Rangers’ advanced stats underscore the concerns about the team at 5-on-5, as they are under 50 per cent in both expected goals and high-danger chances. The Rangers are among the worst in the NHL in rush chances allowed and the Flyers preyed on that vulnerability, exposing them with the second wave and converting on a cross-and-drop that while being initially fumbled still led to a goal. And yet, I’m here to tell you the Rangers will win on Saturday.

The Rangers played poorly in the first period against the Islanders on Tuesday and then completely dominated the final two frames. They were jumping the Islanders’ passes between the blue lines and forcing them into turnovers, and now the Islanders will be without their best defenceman in Noah Dobson.

After Dobson left the game on Thursday, the Islanders’ defencemen stepped up against the Montreal Canadiens and provided a needed offensive boost. Notwithstanding, I have serious doubts about the Islanders’ defencemen’s ability to skate and advance the puck up ice on Saturday as the Islanders try to stretch the zone. Without Dobson, I am skeptical about the Islanders’ ability to create sustained pressure in the offensive zone.

If the Rangers can hem the Islanders in, they’ll find a lot of offensive opportunity. The Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad lines are both adroit at finding the cross-seam pass, setting up the one-timer in the middle-to-high slot, and using the area from behind the net to feed the teammate in the slot. As well as Varlamov is playing right now, he may need to be outstanding to win the game for the Islanders on Saturday.

The biggest mismatch will be the Rangers’ third-best power-play against the Islanders’ league-worst penalty kill. The Rangers' power-play creates a lot of motion up high to draw the penalty killer toward them as a means to open up the area down low for tips by Chris Kreider and Vincent Trocheck. For the Islanders to win, they basically need to stay out of the penalty box because the Rangers' power-play could notch two, possibly three, goals in this game.

The Rangers are 28-11 at home this season (among the best in the league) and the Islanders are 17-17-5 on the road. If the Islanders win, it’ll be their longest win streak of the season. I don’t see that happening. I will gladly take the Rangers to snap their losing streak and win at home to help secure home ice in the playoffs.

Pick: Rangers Moneyline -172


Buffalo Sabres at Florida Panthers, Saturday April 13 – 5:00 PM ET

For securing one of the last two spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the bar has been set low, as commented upon by most-to-all hockey fans. This makes the fact that the Buffalo Sabres will miss the postseason all the more painful.

Consider: The Sabres have more wins than the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals, three teams fighting tooth and nail for those two remaining postseason berths. Buffalo appears to have hit on a stud in 25-year-old goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who ranks top six in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). And even with defenceman Bowen Byram absent on Thursday night, the Sabres have a dizzying array of talent on their roster, especially when they are healthy and close to their full complement. While the story of Buffalo can be seen as one of missed opportunity, the more relevant storyline is about their pivot.

Last season, the Sabres’ hallmark was up-tempo offence. They racked up goals and tried to outscore their opponents. This season has given us a team that tries to play less carefree and recklessly, and instead executes 200-foot hockey. Rather than trading rushes, the Sabres lean on their forecheck and cycle game.

On Thursday night, the Sabres butted heads with the Washington Capitals, whose entire M.O. is playing low-event hockey, the tip of the spear being their forecheck. And yet it was the Sabres, now eliminated from the playoffs, who exhibited five-man support, both on defence and on their forecheck.

In the offensive zone, the Sabres had success with a high cycle and five-man rotation. They are replete with puck-movers on the back end and at their best can intersperse passes to their shooters opening up in the slot and working their way to the inside for a low-slot play. When rush chances did emerge, they were organic and buoyed by the center-lane drive from a Sabres defenceman opening up the second wave.

In 2023, one of the more reliable bets one could make was against the Sabres coming off a win. And Buffalo’s struggles with consistency over the first few months this season are a large reason why they are out of the playoff race. But in 2024, they have been better at stringing together wins, and on Saturday they will need to bring their A-game against one of the best teams in the NHL: the Florida Panthers.

The Panthers’ difficulties in recent weeks have been largely a byproduct of their breakout. Opponents succeeded at hemming them in and were able to win the race to retrieve the puck faster. This week, against the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets, that hasn’t been a problem. Florida has cruised out of the zone and done so with speed.

If the Sabres are going to thwart the Panthers’ ambitions to win the Atlantic and potentially lock down home-ice advantage through the first two rounds, they need their F3 and defencemen stepping up to intercept and hold the blue line when Florida is executing its breakout. Turnovers above the circles have been a sore spot for Florida, and claiming possession allows the opponent to attack the Panthers while skaters are on the wrong side of the puck, forcing those in front of the play to scramble to sort out coverage. 

The Panthers have the clear advantage in the underlying stats and, after a really bad March statistically speaking, there are signs Florida has righted the ship. But if Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is playing against Luukkhonen, the Buffalo goaltender has been better in the last two months in GSAx.

Buffalo has battled through injuries, but its forward group is healthy and the skill of its top-nine is significant. With Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe and Aaron Ekblad on the shelf, the Sabres could well pull off the upset because of their depth. Even if they lose, I see this as a close, one-goal game.

Pick: Sabres Puck line (+1.5) -142


Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs, Saturday April 13 – 7:00 PM ET

To fade the Maple Leafs right now requires not being spooked by the goal-scoring bogeyman—Auston Matthews. Whatever blockades or precautions a team takes, or stories it tells itself, Matthews is probably collecting one, possibly two, goals. That seems baked in. Still, I’m buying into the Red Wings’ desperation and the bump they get from goaltender Alex Lyon.

Before he was torched by Pittsburgh Thursday night (and some of those tallies were certainly not his fault), Lyon was playing like one of the best goaltenders in the NHL over his last seven games, ranking eighth among goalies in GSAx with five games played or more.

Since the end of February, the Red Wings have five wins in their last 20 games. Before this slump, Detroit won 33 of their first 59 games. I don’t think Detroit is the team with the .610 points percentage that they were for the first 59 games. But they also aren’t the team who ranks behind the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets in points percentage over this most recent 20-game stretch. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The Red Wings could have come away from their last two games with four points, although they gained only one. I think a little more puck luck is coming their way.

Additionally, in their last two games, there have been green shoots of optimism. When Detroit manages the puck well, it can be dangerous. The Red Wings have firepower at forward and can attack with speed off the rush or ping the puck around on the cycle to feed the open man. When they recede and play a passive forecheck in the neutral zone, they can force turnovers and wallop teams with their counterattack.

But when put into a defensive posture, it can get ugly. Against the Penguins on Thursday night, Detroit struggled on its breakouts. Even this deep into the season, Detroit has trouble sorting out its coverage. The Maple Leafs are aces at  opening up the slot and creating confusion and this is a pretty obvious vulnerability for Detroit. The Red Wings need their forecheck to be successful, and they need to stretch the ice against Toronto on their breakouts. A failure to do either would probably result in a loss.

Toronto splitting up Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander and having each lead their own line has clearly worked. The stars and role players have gelled well, and the Leafs’ recent advanced stats are stellar. But against the Devils, some of Toronto’s uglier qualities bubbled up. On the Erik Haula, Nolan Foote, and Jesper Bratt goals at 5-on-5, Toronto failed in its checking and on its breakout. Even though Toronto completely dominated at 5-on-5, questions about defensive breakdowns linger.

Detroit has lost by two or more goals only 21 of 79 times this season. Even with an unsavory minus number, the Red Wings hang around, and Saturday is a must-win game. I love them for the underdog puck line.

Pick: Red Wings Puck line (+1.5) -156