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Intelligent Hockey: Backing a road team gives bettors bigger slice of probability pie

New York Rangers Tyler Pitlick, Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow New York Rangers Tyler Pitlick, Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow - The Canadian Press

Backing a road team has advantages because it allows the bettor to get a more palatable price. If I think the Rangers are in a different tier than the Predators, I can grab the Rangers' moneyline at a viable minus number because they are on the road. 

Backing a road team can also enable the bettor to take advantage of an underdog puck-line bet. The Panthers and Penguins are treated like they are vastly superior than their Saturday adversaries. Maybe. But with these two teams at home, taking their underdog, road-team opponent for the +1.5 puck line becomes an option. The bettor has a bigger slice of the probability pie. NHL games are often decided by one goal and, by grabbing the road team, you win if the underdog pulls an upset, or if it loses by one goal. Cheers!

New York Rangers at Nashville Predators
Saturday, December 2 – 4:30 PM ET

Variety is a strength in city restaurant offerings, entertainment options, and formidable hockey teams. Backing the Rangers on Saturday is appealing because of the diversity of ways they can attain victory.

They can win on the back of goaltending, where they have 2022 Vezina Trophy Winner Igor Shesterkin or the resurgent Jonathan Quick. Shockingly, it is Quick who has the better Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) this season.

What about Predators goalie Juuse Saros? Well, his numbers have been really poor this season. During Nashville’s recent six-game win streak, Saros’s play has been significantly better, but backup goaltender Kevin Lankinen was in for two of those wins. In the Predators’ 6-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild Thursday night, Saros posted a -2.35 GSAx. 

Opponents have been preying on Saros’s small stature and putting goals in the top half of the net or in his five-hole. Minnesota knew where to shoot and Saros struggled. Saros is vulnerable to being lit up against the Rangers’ talented scorers. 

The Rangers do a nice job gapping up and trying to hold the blue lines and, if Nashville isn’t careful, a failed Predators forecheck or poor pass in the neutral zone can be turned into a transition opportunity or counterattack for New York. On Thursday, the Predators were victimized by the Wild, getting caught beneath the puck, and Minnesota took advantage. If Nashville is careless or struggles to force a turnover, New York can supply a rush game that attacks in waves and effectively features a trailer.

Finally, if the Rangers can sustain offensive zone time, Nashville could get carved up. The Rangers use their defencemen to interchange and have continued to use pick plays, a holdover from their previous coaching regime. In addition, their power play is excellent. And they are best in the league in the faceoff circle, and the return of Adam Fox to the lineup will only make them more dangerous off set plays.

If this game were in New York, the moneyline would be pricey. But New York has been lethal on the road, with a 9-2-1 record. Nashville has been much better at home but, after a six-game win streak, they may be crashing back to earth. I like the Rangers’ moneyline in this contest.

Pick: Rangers Moneyline -137 


New York Islanders at Florida Panthers
Saturday, December 2 – 6 PM ET

Glance at the box score and one might assume the New York Islanders’ Thursday night victory over the heavily favoured Carolina Hurricanes was a sharp departure from two months of disappointment and heartbreak. Not quite. The Islanders did win in overtime, but they characteristically forfeited a lead by allowing a last-second goal in the third period that pushed the game past regulation.

New York was utterly dominated in the game, outshot by a whopping 33-10 margin at 5-on-5. In high-danger chances and expected goals, it was the Islanders’ worst game of the season. Sure, they won, but it is hard to envision a victory inspiring less confidence.

On the ESPN broadcast before the start of the second period, Islanders coach Lane Lambert called Carolina a “high-pressure team.” He mentioned that when the Islanders’ breakout stalled, Carolina got chances. But when the puck went deep in the offensive zone, good things happened for New York.

This depiction of Carolina maps perfectly onto the Islanders’ next adversary: the Florida Panthers. Like the Hurricanes, the Panthers will use their forecheck to pressure a wobbly Islanders defensive group. The Panthers will force the Islanders to box them out when they go from low to high, and they will shoot into the slot and try to create tips. Look at the underlying numbers and it is a landslide of good news for the team not from New York.

One thing the Islanders did with some success against Carolina is stretch their forwards on breakouts. By creating separation from their defencemen, the Islanders forwards try to create plays in the neutral zone and push the forecheck back. But this tactic is dangerous with Florida, which is a strong counterattack team, as exhibited in its win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.

Even playing terribly, the Islanders came away with a victory against the Hurricanes, albeit with lots of help from Carolina goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov, who was abysmal. But this is kind of the deal with New York. The Islanders play ugly games, besieged by turnovers, and forget how to defend or where to position oneself around the net. They blow leads routinely. They have a dreadful penalty kill. And yet they have talent and goaltending, and that helps them stick around in games. 

The last time the Islanders lost by more than two goals was November 13, which was nine games ago. The Mathew Barzal-Bo Horvat combo looked strong last night, and Ilya Sorokin should be in net on Saturday since Semyon Varlamov played Thursday.

There are fun teams to bet on and then there are bets where you hold your nose. The Islanders are on the extreme end of the spectrum as betting on New York is torturous. Still, they have the personnel and goaltending to hang around and possibly even beat Florida. I’ll take the +1.5 puck line, wagering they can keep the game close.

Pick: Islanders Puck line (+1.5) -170


Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Saturday, December 2 – 7 PM ET

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been a favourite pick of mine on the +1.5 puck line this year because, despite their poor coaching, their pronounced talent keeps them in games. The Philadelphia Flyers also are appealing on the +1.5 puck line, but for a different reason.

It could be argued that the Flyers have the least amount of talent in their division. There are certainly question marks about the young players they look to as the future. But in the present, an area they can rely on is a coach who does a good job keeping the team motivated. The name John Tortorella evokes a lot of opinions but, to his credit, this Philadelphia team shows up and gives maximum effort. And coming off consecutive losses and playing the wildly inconsistent Pittsburgh Penguins, I love the Flyers for this bet.

Although the Lightning lost to the Penguins on Thursday, they employed interesting strategies that I fully expect the Flyers to incorporate in their game plan. Perhaps the most noteworthy one was in the second period when Tampa Bay had a parade of quality rush chances. The Lightning utilized the stretch pass to get into open ice, with passes up the gut and on the perimeter.

The Penguins’ defence leaves much to be desired. Pittsburgh’s neutral zone coverage and fortifying of its own blue line could be generously described as iffy, and too often the Tampa Bay forwards entered the offensive zone with little resistance.

The Lightning accrued a ton of looks in the first period too, racking up an impressive number of slot shots. One way they did this is by attacking from non-scoring areas and forcing the Penguins to box them out. In their own end, the Penguins can lose track of their man and get outnumbered, or just be plain overpowered in the crease.

The Penguins’ fortunes rise and fall on their 5-on-5 play because their power play has cratered; more specifically, the Sidney Crosby line is the engine that fuels this team. On Thursday night, Jack Hughes collected a goal for the New Jersey Devils when a Flyers forecheck stalled and Philadelphia allowed the Devils’ dangerous forwards to get behind the defence. The Crosby line will be looking to blow the zone and strike in this same fashion.

The Flyers will need to strike a balance. They want their defencemen joining and leading the rush and pinching on the forecheck. They also want to stay on the attack with continuous shooting and retrieving to force the Penguins to defend. But maintaining offensive zone time while keeping the Penguins’ forwards at bay will be what decides this game.

Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry has been tremendous this season, but the mere fact that he has not won more than he has lost indicates that Pittsburgh has issues that even his sparkling play can’t solve. The Flyers can win this game outright. But if Philadelphia falls short, I think it goes beyond regulation.

Pick: Flyers Puck line (+1.5) -162