Skip to main content

Intelligent Hockey: Underdogs bank on keeping pace in postseason race


For the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues it is about quickly getting back on the winning side of the ledger to keep pace in the postseason race. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, the month of November has been almost entirely marked by losses. While the mood is sour in Columbus, a victory will soon arrive to relieve the tension. I’m not positive that all three underdogs discussed here will come out victorious this Saturday, but I do think they will keep it close and my picks reflect that.

Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes
Saturday November 18 – 7:00 PM ET

The biggest head-to-head matchup on Saturday will take place when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ venerable first line tries to create offence against the Carolina Hurricanes’ peerless shutdown line. The Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust line is ageless. The synchrony of movement for those three from so many minutes logged together has them air-dropping the puck around and skating into lanes before they even appear.

But Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour will utilize the Jordan Staal shutdown line against them, and with Carolina getting the last change, it will be tough to duck Staal and company. On the season, Staal’s line has been outscoring opponents 4:1 and has a +64 shot differential. In high-danger chances, its percentage is 80 per cent. The question becomes: If the Penguins’ first line gets stymied, can they still win?

Carolina wants to grind Pittsburgh down. The Hurricanes lead the NHL in offensive zone time and the least amount of time in the defensive zone, and they harness their dump-ins to take away the wall and create mayhem on the forecheck.  If the Penguins are going to win, they’ll need to use the Hurricanes’ strengths against them.

Pittsburgh likes to have its wings chip the puck forward with teammates in position to scoop up the puck and attack. Considering how aggressively Carolina forechecks, and since they play man-on-man defence over 200 feet, the Penguins will try to bypass Carolina using tips and will be eager to catch them beneath the puck or on the wrong side. In the offensive zone, I expect Pittsburgh to try to spread Carolina out and then beat the Hurricanes’ defender to the inside. In the Florida series last playoffs, the Florida Panthers did this effectively.

What is hard to overlook with the Hurricanes is the goaltending quotient. Frederik Andersen is out indefinitely, and Pyotr Kochetkov and Antti Raanta have both been bad this season. Pittsburgh is top 10 in the NHL in goals per game and its offence is elite in the advanced stats.

The Hurricanes were missing forwards Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho for parts of this season, which partly explains why they have won only four games by two or more. And yet, even though Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry is far from perfect, I like Pittsburgh’s offence to keep this game close.

Pick: Penguins Puck line (+1.5) -162 

Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals
Saturday, November 18 – 7:30 PM ET

I’m not sure Pascal Vincent of the Columbus Blue Jackets is a good coach. But for someone who got an NHL head-coaching job because the franchise’s first option fell through (euphemism alert!), the man certainly has conviction.

Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine are the highest-paid forwards on the Blue Jackets, yet they were benched in the second half of the third period on Thursday night as Columbus tried to stage a comeback against the Arizona Coyotes.

To make matters worse, for Gaudreau this wasn’t a one-off. The last time the Blue Jackets played the Capitals, their opponent on Saturday, Gaudreau also got benched. You have to be extremely sure of yourself to make these types of coaching decisions, and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that interestingly started the first time Gaudreau got benched, one could question the logic of such an approach.

If you think Vincent is a bad coach, the first thing you’d point to is the lack of answers on the breakout. Why this team doesn’t use a hard-rim-chip-out-by-the-wing like the Pittsburgh Penguins, or a flip out like the Carolina Hurricanes, is mystifying. I understand the desire to have possession on the zone exit, but every game this team fumbles its way through its breakouts because it can’t execute a short or intermediate pass from the defencemen to the forwards with any consistency. Whatever adjustments have been made have been too slight to make a difference. Driving the puck north and using the team’s speed to chase down the area pass are so obviously the answer sitting in plain sight.

But the Capitals are a forgiving foe for a highly vulnerable Blue Jackets’ breakout. Washington’s defencemen aren’t aggressive stepping up to crunch the outlet and hold the blue line, so the Blue Jackets should have more time and room if they can duck the initial forecheckers. To be clear, Columbus struggles against the F1 too, but there is at least likelihood that the Blue Jackets won’t spend minutes trying to tape-to-tape pass out of their end.

One thing Washington does really well is front pucks and lock down on defence against the cycle. The Capitals play man-on-man defence. On Tuesday, when they won 3-0 despite a valiant effort from the Las Vegas Golden Knights to try to tie them up with their offence on the cycle, the Capitals did a really nice job sticking with their assignment.

Nevertheless, there is an opening against the Capitals on the rush. Vegas produced several breakaways by being opportunistic about getting behind the Capitals’ defence. The Blue Jackets should look to fly the zone and use area and indirect passes to catch the Capitals flat-footed. To their credit, we saw the Blue Jackets try this several times against Arizona and it was effective. Even though Gaudreau and Laine are the marquee forwards, it is players like Adam Fantilli, Yegor Chinakhov, and Kirill Marchenko who are exhibiting the most dynamism to attack off the rush and seize on that opportunity.

I think the Blue Jackets could win this game. But considering five of the Blue Jackets’ seven defeats during the losing streak have come by a goal, I’ll happily scoop up the Blue Jackets’ (+1.5) puck line.

Pick: Blue Jackets Puck line (+1.5) -164 

St. Louis Blues at Los Angeles Kings
Saturday, November 18 – 10:30 PM ET

The St. Louis Blues are not taken seriously. Their odds to win the Western Conference on FanDuel is +5000, and a whopping 11 teams in the conference have lower odds. St. Louis has three more wins than the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, and Edmonton Oilers while playing the same amount of games, yet it’s still given longer odds. The Blues have three games in hand on the Seattle Kraken, and two more wins than Seattle, but the Kraken have shorter odds. Instead of a musical note, the Blues’ logo might as well be a jester. Haters gonna hate.

The skepticism around the Blues does have some basis, and in a matchup like Saturday’s, the blemishes can be magnified. To be blunt: By the numbers, the Blues don’t stack up well against the Kings. Los Angeles is one of the best teams in the NHL in the advanced stats, absolutely dominating in expected goals and high-danger chances. The Blues are one of the worst.

Strategically, the Kings would seem to have a large advantage too. The Blues want to carry the puck through the neutral zone and wait for a quality shot opportunity. But Los Angeles utilizes a 1-3-1 in the neutral zone, and forces adversaries to dump and chase. Understanding that their layers of skaters hinder the clean entry, Los Angeles anticipates the dump-in; the Kings are precise with their puck movement and retrieval, leading to a crisp breakout.

At the other end, the Kings forecheck aggressively, which might give St. Louis fits. Against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night, the Blues got thumped by the NHL’s worst team, struggling against the Sharks’ forecheck. The Blues tried to stretch the zone to power the puck toward the other end, but the weak effort in the defensive zone allowed San Jose to run up a multi-goal margin quickly.

And yet, dismiss the Blues at your own peril. Arguably their biggest advantage is goaltending. Jordan Binnington has been fantastic thus far, boasting a top-four-in-the-league Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) as of this writing. Also, the Blues have dynamic young players in Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, and if coach Craig Berube can devise creative ways to bypass the three skaters in the Kings’ 1-3-1 neutral-zone alignment, Thomas and Kyrou are potent in open ice.

On the cycle, Blues defencemen are very active playmakers, sliding down for the interchange, but also wedging themselves into the slot to create layers of traffic. And St. Louis fields lot of veterans who are in the twilight of their prime but do a decent job holding onto the puck and camouflaging the point of attack. In aggregate, the team has a lot more talent than is generally acknowledged. Before playing maybe the worst game they could possibly play against San Jose, the Blues had won three straight.

Fifteen games into the season, the Blues have only lost consecutive games once. While one might imagine St. Louis has been riding puck luck to a better-than-expected record, the Kings have a higher PDO than the Blues at all strengths.

Coming off a humiliating loss, I expect the Blues to rebound and keep it close.
Pick: Blues Puck line (+1.5) -152