Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final
If these playoffs have taught us anything, it is that, given an opening, the Florida Panthers will make you pay. That lesson first reverberated in the Boston series when the Bruins’ failure to convert or execute in several plays or sequences led to their demise.
Nevertheless, the second and third rounds featured moments where the Panthers’ adversaries could have authored a different narrative. Early on in both series, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes had opportunities to take command against Florida, but the Panthers prevailed and expelled both opponents in surprisingly speedy fashion. Now Vegas has its own version of giving Florida life after failing to capitalize on its excellent chance to go ahead 3-0 in the series.
In Thursday’s Game 3, Vegas forward Chandler Stephenson had the opportunity to notch an insurance tally on a breakaway at the end of the second period with the Golden Knights up 2-1, but he failed to deposit the puck in the back of the net. Ivan Barbashev barely missed on his volley to clinch the game when he rang his shot off the crossbar in the third period. The near misses proved costly. The Golden Knights failed to protect their lead, allowing a goal in the final minutes and with the Florida goaltender pulled.
Glance at the sportsbooks and the Panthers’ odds to win the series are long, but that is nothing new. Florida has been defying logic all playoffs. And now goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky may have rekindled his mojo.
With a resurgent Bobrovsky and the Golden Knights’ defence allowing two goals a game in regulation this series, I am tacking toward unders.
Vegas Golden Knights at Florida Panthers
Saturday, June 10 – 8 PM ET
This odd and entertaining Cup final has forced me to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of offensive chances in gushes from two teams trying to win with defence. Both the Golden Knights and Panthers want to get the puck deep and forecheck their opponent into oblivion, using the high-to-low play to spread their opponent out.
Each team made it to the Cup final courtesy of their team defence, and they are determined to win by grinding their opponent to a pulp. Yet if you look at the 5-on-5 numbers when the score has been within one goal, the chances indicate this series has had persistent offensive fireworks. If you compare the rates of the Golden Knights in expected goals and high-danger chances created at 5-on-5 to those of teams during the regular season, Vegas would rank fifth and first respectively. Florida’s numbers fare well too.
Yet I see the goals total of Game 4 tacking more toward Game 3 than Game 2 or Game 1 and the principal reason is Bobrovsky. In Game 1, Bobrovsky submitted a 0.32 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Not amazing, but not horrendous. In Game 2, he cratered, getting pulled for Alex Lyon and posting a -2.55 GSAx. Then, in Game 3, Bobrovsky dazzled, registering a 1.71 GSAx and, like John Wick, seeming to say, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” It’s a little ominous that Vegas’s only two goals came on the power play.
The question becomes: Can Florida score enough to win? On Carter Verhaeghe’s game-winning goal, we saw the reemergence of the Panthers’ relentless forecheck that had buoyed them to the Cup final. Florida has struggled to time its forecheck in this series, allowing Vegas to whoosh out of its end and zip through the neutral zone.
But in Game 3, the Panthers did a better job carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone, fighting through back-checkers to put themselves in position to pass the puck back and establish territorial advantage. I also thought the Panthers calibrated their soft dump-ins well and were more aligned in their support. That pressure at times forced the Golden Knights to reset their breakout and move the puck backward, an instinct that has backfired at times for Vegas this postseason.
The problem for Florida is once it controls possession in the offensive zone, the puck too often becomes engorged by the Golden Knights’ shot-blockers, generally a surefire way to kill the sequence.
But a team that fronts the puck as aggressively as Vegas in order to block shots can lose its positioning. We saw that misstep in Game 3 and in other moments in this series when a Florida forward found himself alone in front of the net, beneath the Golden Knights’ bubble of defenders. Also encouraging for Florida, one byproduct of more offensive zone time has been success creating from beneath the goal line, forcing Vegas into a few bad defensive reads and giving Florida quality scoring chances.
Still, it’s hard to watch this series and not come away believing the Golden Knights are the better team, at least in terms of skaters. They have much better depth, they are far better at denying entries and back-checking, and their offence can come in a plethora of ways.
I thought the Golden Knights created a lot of really nice counterattack looks in Game 3, as their ability to force turnovers in the neutral zone allowed them to slingshot into the offensive zone with time and room. More often, the Golden Knights’ forecheck and rush have had moments of brilliance. But if the Bobrovsky of the first three rounds is back, can Vegas prevail?
If Bobrovsky has regained his pre-Cup-final form, I think Vegas’s offence will need to come from the usual characters: Jack Eichel, Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, and Stephenson. The Golden Knights have found offence using the weak-side defenceman all series long, so that is another possibility for scoring. Even though Nicolas Roy has been ginning up offence on the second unit of the power play and his fourth line continues to excel, it’s hard to escape the fact that he sees much less ice time than many of his peers and is leaned on for defensive zone faceoffs. So he seems a worthy under.
As far as Florida, its third line hasn’t made much of a dent in this series. The Anton Lundell, Ryan Lomberg, and Sam Reinhart triumvirate has a 7-6 shot advantage at 5-on-5 and has manufactured two high-danger chances and allowed two high-danger chances. Not sure those numbers have Vegas trembling with fear! Lundell has a goal and an assist in this series, but the assist came shorthanded and the goal came off a pass from forward Anthony Duclair, who plays on a different line. Also, that tally came in the midst of a blowout defeat.
While scoring for the Panthers, who are more top heavy than the Golden Knights, is also likely to come from the nucleus, I don’t foresee Matthew Tkachuk summoning another multi-point effort in Game 4. Tkachuk hasn’t registered consecutive multi-point games since the first round against Boston, and while Game 3 wasn’t Adin Hill’s best, his GSAx is second best in the postseason, trailing only Bobrovsky.
With the Golden Knights’ formidable depth, even Florida being at home doesn’t necessarily give coach Paul Maurice a decisive edge in terms of whom he can match Tkachuk against. It also is worth mentioning that, as of this writing, the Panthers’ power play is in shambles. Unless that changes, offence from Tkachuk will need to come at 5-on-5 or with the goalie pulled. Tkachuk is a terrific player, but two or more points is a tall task.
I see this game as a low-scoring affair, with Bobrovsky back to his luminous self of previous rounds and Vegas swallowing up Florida’s best offensive forays. As such, I want to fade offence, and playing multiple unders is the roadmap.
Picks: Anton Lundell U 0.5 points -150, Matthew Tkachuk U 1.5 points -195, Nicolas Roy U 0.5 points -165