Betting evokes human emotions. With certain people there may come a time when you contemplate, “Life is short and weekends shorter. Do I actually enjoy hanging out with this person?” Similarly, at this point in the regular season, the deficits of certain teams should be off-putting.
This Saturday, I lean on two old comrades in the Tampa Bay Lightning and Edmonton Oilers, and distance myself from the New York Islanders, who have just a little too much drama for me to invest in them.
New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning
Saturday, November 20 – 4 PM ET
It is hard not to marvel at the way the Lightning find ways to reinvent themselves and adapt. Without Nikita Kucherov and with Tampa’s entire third line from the Cup years playing for different cities, you would assume the Bolts would have difficulty coping. Yet after a bumpy start, they are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games.
The Lightning have elite defensive numbers at 5-on-5. As Thursday night showcased, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy provides Tampa Bay with an exceptionally large margin of error, compensating for its intermittently sloppy defensive play. Brayden Point has a goals above replacement (GAR) in the 6’s, and only Leon Draisaitl occupies a space in the 7’s or higher. Steven Stamkos, who yours truly aggressively faded in a preview for player point totals, is making me look foolish as he leads the team in points.
In Saturday’s contest, the Lightning will have to keep an eye out for the New Jersey Devils when they are trying to leave their end. The Devils put their foot on the pedal with stretch passes and a layered transition attack. The New Jersey forwards are constantly trying to get behind the opposing defence, and they eagerly put the puck on goal as a means to force rebound opportunities. New Jersey wants its forwards driving toward the other end by any means necessary.
This calculus is an understandable way to mitigate the problems the Devils can have when trapped in their own zone. I expect the Lightning to employ a similar strategy as the Florida Panthers on Thursday night. The Panthers blended their penchant for quick counterattacks with a heavy, power game. They got the puck beneath the goal line and forced the Devils to defend them one-on-one around the net and cling to their man on their set faceoff plays. Not only did New Jersey flop, the game was 4-1 before the halfway point in the contest.
Still, if the Devils can gain separation on the rush, they could get a lead and pull the upset. This puts tremendous pressure on the Lightning forwards to offer back pressure, thereby helping their defencemen keep tighter gaps.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were 21-7 at Amalie Arena and slightly above .500 on the road. This season, they have been better on the road, boasting a 5-1-1 record. But three of their four losses at home came before Oct. 24, which is nearly a month ago. Ergo, the Lightning have been making gains lately, and I expect the good times to continue rolling in their own rink.
Last season when Vasilevskiy played at home, the Lightning were nearly unbeatable. Assuming he plays and Brian Elliott goes on Sunday, I like the Lightning 60-minute line.
Pick: Lightning -130
Calgary Flames at New York Islanders
Saturday, November 20 – 7 PM ET
The New York Islanders have had an operable excuse for their poor start: every game they have played this season (13) has been on the road. Last season, the Islanders stunk in their opponents’ arenas and won 75 per cent of their games at home.
But now UBS Arena is ready to host, and the Calgary Flames are the first guest. To say I’m expecting a wild crowd on Saturday would be an understatement. For the Islanders’ first home game I’m anticipating the highest BAC-per-fan of the regular season. How New York plays in front of its raucous, frothy audience will be an important signal to bettors going forward.
Much attention has been paid to the Islanders’ scoring struggles, but what has caught my eye is the team’s early defensive hiccups. The Islanders win with defence, and if their defence is brittle, that is significant.
When comparing the road stats from last season to this season, the once stingy New York defence has been penetrable. This season the Islanders’ expected goals against has risen, and in high-danger chances against, they allowed 8.55 per 60 minutes last season, second best in the NHL, while this season they are conceding 11.77, seventh worst.
Alarms about the team’s defence are further intensified by the injury to stalwart defenceman Ryan Pulock. Last season, no Islanders defensive pairing played more minutes together than Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, and despite playing tough minutes they put up awesome numbers.
This season, coach Barry Trotz has been inclined to split these two up – a move likely driven by the off-season departure of Nick Leddy – with mixed results.
Against the Panthers, Trotz moved Pelech around to play with different defensive partners, but against Calgary, Trotz may be inclined to stick Pelech with Scott Mayfield in an effort to stifle the Flames’ explosive Johnny Gaudreau line.
The Gaudreau line is crushing opponents. At 5-on-5, it has produced 11 goals while surrendering zero (!). The line is close to doubling opponents in high-danger chances. The Gaudreau line is the most dynamic line off the rush, and all three forwards provide different, but complementary, skills. (Matthew Tkachuk has really impressed me with his playmaking ability from the boards.)
Zooming out for the macro look, each Flames forward line supports the puck well by overloading along the boards. When the strong-side defenceman pinches, a forward will retreat to the point. When the play isn’t there, they recede and wait for a counterattack chance. It took time, but Flames coach Darryl Sutter has forged a patient club, one that doesn’t find itself out of position often and devours adversaries’ sloppy play.
The only way New York wins is if its defensive group stymies the Gaudreau line. And to do that, the Islanders need more mobility from their defencemen. If the Islanders continue to try long stretch passes into the neutral zone in lieu of carrying the puck out of their own end, the Flames will have them hemmed in all night.
With Old-Testament-aged defencemen like Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene, the other four defencemen will need to do the heavy lifting. Chara played with Robin Salo in practice on Thursday, a consequential development considering the latter has zero NHL games to his name.
I initially wanted to pick the Islanders. Four straight losses for Trotz and this much time to prepare before its first home game had me itching to take New York. But with Pulock injured, and forwards Josh Bailey and Anders Lee sidelined by COVID protocol, I don’t think the Islanders have the offensive juice or the defence rostered to keep pace with Calgary.
The Flames also have had the best goaltending in the NHL this season. They have depth at forward and defence, with three players among the top 10 in the NHL in GAR. Give me the value on the road.
Pick: Flames +105
Chicago Blackhawks at Edmonton Oilers
Saturday, November 20 – 10 PM ET
In a very ugly season for the Chicago Blackhawks franchise, interim coach Derek King is positioned to be the bright spot for the future. His every-man look resembles your uncle waxing on about the virtues of mountain biking.
The Blackhawks are currently enjoying the dead-cat bounce, having won four straight since King took over. I don’t think this is a mirage; the Blackhawks failed in spectacular fashion under coach Jeremy Colliton, and I think they’ll be better going forward. But the underlying metrics hint that a reversion to a well-below-average squad is in the offing.
Since King took over, the Blackhawks have an offensive expected goals per 60 minutes of 1.75, and only the Arizona Coyotes have been worse in that span of time. Under Colliton, the offensive expected goals was 1.72 through the first 12 games. So, the offence basically hasn’t budged.
The Blackhawks were mocked for their defence under Colliton, but with him at the helm this season the Blackhawks were allowing 9.74 high-danger chances per 60 minutes. Under King, that number has ballooned to 12.49. Even when adjusting the score to only one-goal game scenarios, the numbers bear out that the Blackhawks are surrendering high-danger chances at a far higher clip under King.
Optics-wise, Edmonton is 12-4 and leads the Pacific Division. Life is good. But their record masks how ghastly their defence has been in the month of November. Too often, the Oilers have been content to trade chances and demonstrated apathy toward their gaps and defensive coverage. Puck management has been slipshod.
But the Blackhawks are a salve to those woes, especially at home where Edmonton has agency to set matchups. The Blackhawks have one really good line, consisting of Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach and Patrick Kane. After that, the Blackhawks’ forward depth falls off a cliff. To wit, Jonathan Toews, the team’s putative No. 2 centre, hasn’t scored a goal this season. Brandon Hagel, who currently ranks third on the Blackhawks in goals with four, is day-to-day with a shoulder injury.
Edmonton will undoubtedly miss injured defenceman Darnell Nurse. However, since all the Chicago talent is concentrated on one line, the Oilers will be able to focus their defensive efforts against the Kane line and then sic Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on them at forward. Deeper teams have the resources to expose the Edmonton’s problematic defensive depth, but Chicago is not one of them.
Add in Chicago possessing one of the worst goaltending tandems in the NHL and this seems like a game where McDavid and Draisaitl hoover up several points and Edmonton wins easily. As such, I’ll take the 60-minute line to get that number down.
Pick: Oilers -130