With the NHL trade deadline a relic of the past, most teams have a sense where their season is headed.
For bettors, determining motivation of the players and organization is important. Are they still competitive? Is the team they are facing thriving because it is free from expectations or experiencing a momentary blip in a long season?
This week I look at these issues as I give the nod to three road teams.
Washington Capitals at Philadelphia Flyers
Saturday, Apr. 17 – 12:30PM ET
Being in a rut gets a bad rap. If I have a favourite food, why should I not order it ad nauseam? If I like a song, let me listen to it to my heart’s content. And If I doubt the Philadelphia Flyers with every fiber of my body, I am going to keep picking against them.
The Flyers continue to breathe life into the cliché of winning ugly. In a victory on Thursday night against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia got outshot at 5-on-5, surrendered a bunch of odd-man rush chances, and scored one goal, yet somehow earned two points. Funny thing is, the Flyers’ performance was dramatically improved from Tuesday night, where they quickly unraveled, allowing four goals to the Washington Capitals in the first period. Multiple times the Flyers lost track of players in the low slot, including Alexander Ovechkin.
Own-zone coverage is the key difference between how the Buffalo Sabres approached the Capitals on Thursday night and how the Flyers defended them earlier this week. Like Marv and Harry in the movie Home Alone, the Flyers chased the Capitals around non-scoring areas with unbridled energy, allowing Washington to prey on the area below the dots.
Washington struggled against Buffalo in part because the Sabres didn’t get tempted into rushing the points, instead sitting back in the middle-to-low slot. The Capitals like to bring their third forward to the point so they can slide their defencemen down. When shots were struck from a distance, Buffalo had the numbers advantage to scoop up the puck and flee the zone.
The Capitals were white hot in March, losing only three times in the entire month. In April, they’ve had more hiccups. The Capitals have already lost four times, and at 5-on-5, only the Edmonton Oilers have a worst high-danger chances percentage. Part of the reason Washington has been pulling out wins is its special teams have been a trump card.
If the Flyers need advice on which matchup they should try to exploit, they should look to the Justin Schultz and Brenden Dillon pairing. Since March 1, in 80 minutes together at 5-on-5, the duo has a nauseating 36.12 expected goals percentage. Against Buffalo, the pairing allowed two goals, three high-danger chances, and eight shots against. Schultz was also responsible for the Casey Mittelstadt shorthanded goal when he bungled the puck at the blue line.
The Capitals hold a slim lead in the East Division, but a 5-5 record in their last 10 games has them gripping the guardrails to stay in first. Even though Washington may be vulnerable defensively, the Flyers have been the fourth-lowest scoring team at 5-on-5 in April. Pair that with their uncertainty in goal and on defence, and Washington’s talent should guide them to victory.
Pick: Capitals -139
Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres
Saturday, Apr. 17 – 3PM ET
The Buffalo Sabres will not be cowed. After a season rife with disappointment and turmoil, suddenly, unexpectedly, Buffalo looks feisty. Before they drubbed the Washington Capitals Thursday night, the idea of a resurgent Buffalo could have been met with muffled laughter, as nearly every single win had come against an East Division team outside a playoff spot. Seriously, January 24 was the Sabres’ sole win against a future playoffs team.
But on Thursday, Buffalo beat Washington handily. Now the Penguins, in a highly competitive race for the top spot in the division, are compelled to treat the Sabres as an equal.
The addition of Jeff Carter paid early dividends in his Pittsburgh debut against the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night. The aging power forward flashed speed through the neutral zone, torching Justin Braun in the process. He registered two high-danger chances and four shot attempts. It was an impressive showing. But if the Sabres have a prayer of winning this game, it will be even more important for them to stymie the Sidney Crosby line.
As it happens, Jake Guentzel, not Crosby, ranks fifth in the NHL in expected goals among individual players. But the Crosby line is fearsome on the rush, and a recurring theme Thursday was a Philadelphia defenceman pinching and Pittsburgh seizing on the flat-footed forward. Can Buffalo’s “shutdown” defencemen, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jacob Bryson, slow them down? Count me as doubtful.
For the season, the Sabres rank in the bottom 10 in high-danger chances against per 60 minutes, and this month they rank just outside the top-five worst. This may seem surprising considering the Sabres’ recent successes.
It shouldn’t be. Buffalo is also susceptible to spitting up the puck on its breakouts under heavy pressure. That is highly problematic because the Penguins have a very mobile defence, and they will be looking to try to skate the puck to centre ice and chuck it deep to initiate the forecheck. Pittsburgh’s bottom-nine forwards are all happy to play below the goal line, and the Penguins can force puck battles around the net, which Buffalo will be hard put to win.
The Sabres have only four wins at home this season. After Saturday, I think that number is unchanged. Betting the Penguins is only feasible at a 60-minute line, and since almost all of Buffalo’s extra-time losses have come against non-playoff teams, I am comfortable recommending a regulation-time victory.
Pick: Penguins -167
Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings
Saturday, Apr. 17 – 7PM ET
The Red Wings are currently enjoying their longest win streak of the season, tallying three consecutive victories. After trailing 1-0 on Thursday night, Detroit replied with four unanswered goals, handing Chicago a crippling loss for a team that has plausible playoff aspirations. Even though the Red Wings are 5-3-2 in their last 10 games and are home on Saturday, there is reason to be suspicious about their ability to sweep consecutive series.
During the 10-game stretch, the Red Wings have played in their own end a lot. Only four teams have a worse percentage when it comes to determining shot attempts at 5-on-5. In that same vein, in shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the Red Wings rank eighth-worst. In fairness, Detroit is doing far better in expected goals and high-danger chances than it did leading up to March 28, which shows real improvement in play. But the foundation for this continuing is flimsy.
The Red Wings’ bugaboo all season has been their offence. Prior to Detroit’s last 10 games, only Buffalo had a worse per 60-minute offence at even strength. Chicago is culpable for Detroit’s second-period scoring surge on Thursday because of mental mistakes (Connor Murphy, Patrick Kane) and a gaffe by goaltender Kevin Lankinen. As far as influencing play, Chicago demonstrated poor puck management in its own end and the neutral zone. The Blackhawks’ defence was also guilty of insufficient gaps, which allowed Detroit’s puck-handlers to gain the zone too easily. Before Thursday night, Detroit was 1-5 against Chicago and had struggled to score in almost every game.
The Red Wings had success against the Blackhawks when they ran the high cycle, as a disjointed Chicago defence got flustered in its switches and opportunities opened up. The Blackhawks struggled to connect on the stretch pass in the 4-1 loss, but tighter coverage in their own end that leads to turnovers would present more chances to spring a forward in space.
Kane was held to one shot on goal on Thursday night and was on the ice for all four goals. But No. 88 normally prospers against Detroit, and has had three multi-point games against the Red Wings this season. In Chicago’s last meeting with Detroit in late February, after Kane was held pointless in the first game he scored a goal and two assists in Game 2.
The Blackhawks only have an outside shot of making the postseason and Detroit is no longer a pushover. But I am obligated to fade a continuation of the Red Wings’ streak.
Pick: Blackhawks -162