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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Round 1 of the NHL Playoffs

Colorado Avalanche celebrate Colorado Avalanche celebrate - The Canadian Press

The first-round matchups of the 2024 NHL playoffs are among the best in recent memory. The West is especially tantalizing with the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Vegas Golden Knights, drawing arguably the best team in the league in the Dallas Stars. The NHL’s best offence (the Colorado Avalanche) will face the number two defence (the Winnipeg Jets). Once again, the Edmonton Oilers will tangle with the Los Angeles Kings. And, finally, whatpromises to be the most physical series of the first round: the Nashville Predators against the Vancouver Canucks. Each series brings drama and gushes with storylines.

We are in for a treat over the next few months, and I’m happy to offer my favorite bets for three of the series in the West.


Colorado Avalanche at Winnipeg Jets

The last time these two played, the Winnipeg Jets shellacked the Colorado Avalanche 7-0. Concerns about Avs goaltender Alexandar Georgiev were hardly assuaged when he surrendered four goals on 15 shots. But Georgiev’s difficulties were only part of the story.

The Jets victimized the Avalanche on the backdoor, using their speed and size to make the pass to the far post while gaining inside position. Georgiev can struggle when the puck is in tight, and Colorado doesn’t help matters with itsinconsistent box-outs of late. At 5-on-5 and on the power play, the Jets lead ballooned in the first period to put the game out of reach.

Colorado’s ability to defend around the crease will be a big focus in Games 1 and 2 as the Jets, at home, will unquestionably look to use the slingshot effect of theirlively boards to pop out pucks into the low slot. But I also think there is a mistake in overestimating the Avalanche’s defensive shortcomings and Winnipeg’s ability to bully them around the paint. The Avs were just outside the top ten in high-danger chances against and ranked just behind Winnipeg in expected goals against. 

When engaged, the Avalanche can gap up effectively and use their speed to direct the puck north and feed the rush.The Avs have mobile defencemen who can carry the puck out of their end and harness the stretch pass for a quick transition. While goaltending is a big question mark forColorado, I am anticipating much more pushback from the Avs when Winnipeg is in the offensive zone.

Another pressing issue in this series will be whether Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon plays with Mikko Rantanen. When these two are together, they have a +31-goal differential at 5-on-5 and can seem unstoppable. But if Winnipeg coach Rick Bowness uses the Adam Lowry line and that stymies them, can Colorado still win?

The Avalanche’s lack of secondary scoring was the reason they were upset by the Seattle Kraken in the playoffs last year, and despite several big moves at the deadline,Colorado hasn’t completely figured out how it wants to configure its top six in a way where it isn’t MacKinnon’s line or bust. Clearly, this is something coach Jared Bednar is focused on, and my suspicion is he starts the series with MacKinnon and Rantanen together. But if that line iseffectively thwarted, Bednar needs to quickly split them up. 

While they are a mingy defensive team, one pain point for the Jets this season has been the chances they’ve allowed off rebounds. The Avs love to bring a forward high and shoot into layers of players in the slot. The Jets will need to be airtight sorting out coverage when that happens. Still, if the Avs can cleanly exit their zone, they are deadly using the second wave of the rush. The Jets are very good at denying slot shots, but Colorado is among the best in the league at pushing back the first line of defence to open up room for the trailer to walk into the slot.

And yet, if the Avs can only score on the rush, their path to winning the series may be too narrow. They need theirforecheck to be effective and to establish their cycle,alleviating pressure on their vulnerable goaltender and trying to thwart Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets, who had the league’s best Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) this season. The Jets will overload on one side, leaving the weak side defenceman open. The Avs need to be able to protect the puck along the boards and use non-scoring areas to utilize the width of the ice on their passes. 

You may remember that the Boston Bruins finished the regular season a year ago with an eight-game winning streak. They went on to win three of their next four games of the postseason. But then came the crash, with Boston dropping three games to lose the series in shocking fashion.

Winnipeg winning eight straight to close out this season could result in a similar crash. The last time the Jets won eight straight this season, they won two games after the streak was snapped and then proceeded to lose their next five games. Conversely, the Avalanche have lost seven of their last 11 and are mired in a slump, which, based on their regular season, is exactly when to buy into them. Goaltending is worrisome, but I’ll take the league soon-to-be MVP (MacKinnon) and arguably the league’s best defenceman (Cale Makar) to avoid consecutive first-round exits for the Avs. 

Pick: Avalanche to win the series -138


Nashville Predators at Vancouver Canucks

I suspect this will be the most physical first-round series of the playoffs. While both teams have the skill and speed to generate off the rush, I expect a matchup that is decided by who has more success off their forecheck and cycle. 

On defence, the Predators’ desire to protect the middle of the ice has their five players collapse below the top of the circle to try to protect the slot. Adding to the likely mayhem around the interior, the Canucks’ M.O. is getting shots through to several Vancouver bodies at the net to obscure the opposing goaltender’s sightline and create chances from tips and rebounds. Against Nashville’s 5’11”Juuse Saros, the Canucks’ inclination to use traffic to take away the goaltender’s eyes will be on overdrive. 

Ultimately, three things make me believe the Canucks will win this series. First, I am fearful that if the Filip Forsberg, Ryan O’Reilly, and Gustav Nyquist line is hindered by a Canucks’ shutdown line, the Predators won’t be able to produce enough offence. When that line hasn’t been on the ice, the Predators were a +9 at 5-on-5 in expected goals,and in high-danger chances they were well above water. But the playoffs are a different beast, and I have concerns about Nashville’s depth issues catching up with them against the Canucks’ top skill.

Second, the Predators have a below-average penalty kill and the Canucks’ power play is fringe top ten. The Canucks don’t run a ton of plays on the man advantage, but what they use is effective: Elias Pettersson around the net after a Quinn Hughes shot. A Pettersson one-timer. Brock Boeser on the back-door play. The Canucks will look to take away Saros’s sightline on the power play too, and with thedifferent options Vancouver has, I just don’t know if the Predators can keep the interior clean and eliminate the skill on the flanks.

Finally, while Saros has a MassMutual commercial, Canucks netminder Thatcher Demko has been the better of the two this season. And they aren’t very close in GSAx or Goals Save Above Average (GSAA). With the Canucks boasting the talent, special teams, and goaltender advantage, I like them to win a grinding, tough series.

Pick: Canucks to win the series -150


Vegas Golden Knights at Dallas Stars

The Golden Knight were extremely aggressive and clever at the trade deadline, and the urgency of their actions reflected a franchise trying to capitalize on their Stanley Cup window. While the road to repeat is never easy, Vegas has an astonishingly difficult path back. 

FanDuel has the Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and Colorado Avalanche owning the shortest odds from the West to capture the Cup, and these teams may be the threeopponents in the Golden Knights’ way to a return trip. In the first round, the Knights draw the team with the shortest odds in the West and a franchise that has won 12 of their last 14 games.

Can the Golden Knights muddy this series and subdue the Stars’ elite offence? That is the big question. And the main priority to slowing down Dallas is kneecapping the Stars’ rush. The Stars were the best team in the advanced stats in defence this season, and no team in the NHL weaponizes this fact more than they.

As soon as the Stars disrupt a play and there is a loose puck, their forwards will fly the zone to spark a transition opportunity. This leaves their opponent in a pickle. To create scoring chances on the cycle against Dallas requires being aggressive and using lots of motion, with a defenceman almost certainly pinching. But that overextended offensive posture suddenly becomes vulnerable once the puck veers toward the boards and the Stars forwards can get behind the defense. 

The Golden Knights want their defencemen active and to pinch and stand up at lines, but their ability to interrupt the Stars’ stretch passes and how well they coordinate with the forwards on the Stars’ four-man rush chances will be critical in Vegas’s ability to choke off Dallas’s offensive firepower. 

Even if the Golden Knights can turn this series into a grind,how they shot-block and exit their zone will be fascinating. They are infamous shot-blockers and will try to layer the middle to take away the shooting lane. But instead of relying on cross-seam passes, I expect the Stars to use fly-by screens and their high forwards to climb the slot to get above the defence. And when those pucks go into corners, how dedicated will Vegas be to carrying the puck out or direct passing it out?

When the Golden Knights are at their most stubborn, they try to use short and intermediate passes to leave their zone and can allow great scoring chances off those missed passes. If the Stars’ aggressive forecheck can hold the lines and take away the stretch passes, will the Golden Knights’inflexbility in their own end feed the Stars’ forecheck and cycle?

Evaluating the Golden Knights post-trade deadline is tricky given that they were missing Mark Stone, a massive player in their past and future success. Not a lot of teams can go toe-to-toe with Dallas in terms of depth, but the Golden Knights are one of them. 

Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger had a so-so season with a 1.46 GSAx (worse than Ville Husso for context). One could imagine the Golden Knights being patient and hemming the Stars in their own end to sap their offence while converting off a few opportunistic rush chances. 

There is a scenario where the Golden Knights win this series – no question. But getting to pick possibly the best team in the league in the first round, at full health, at only -130 to win? I will gladly take that.

Pick: Stars to win the series -130