Sometimes, the simplest answers should be embraced. In the prediction business, the NHL season can be a lot of things, from perplexing, to vexing, to awe-inspiring. So, instead of getting cute and trying to pick a winner between, say, the Maple Leafs and the Wild, this week I’m drawn to backing the strong against the weak in search of easy money at a time when extra cash for gifts would be nice during the holidays.
Colorado Avalanche at Ottawa Senators
Saturday, December 4 – 7 PM ET
The Senators are the NHL’s lovable losers. For league fans, Brady Tkachuk’s goal celebration is amusing. Tim Stutzle is magnetic. In fact, the team’s core is so young that it emits a playing-with-house-money vibe. The future may be bright, but in the present, this team is bad. Its longest win streak of the season is one.
The Senators finally snapped a six-game losing streak on Thursday night, shocking the Hurricanes in Raleigh 3-2. It required Ottawa goaltender Anton Forsberg to assume a Dominik Hasek impersonation, as Forsberg finished the night with a ludicrously spectacular 3.45 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx)! I am comfortable picking against a repeat performance.
The victory was nice, but Ottawa has squeezed two six-game losing streaks into a 31-day span, almost all of it during the month of November. Even more incredibly, the Senators had three games postponed due to COVID!
Folks, the Senators’ defence is a problem. They are last in the league in goals against, and it should be no surprise that their defensive numbers in expected goals and high-danger chances are bad. In controlling shot attempts, no team in the NHL is worse. And on Saturday, they get an Avalanche team that now has close to its full complement back at forward and leads the NHL in goals per game.
Nathan MacKinnon has returned to the fold, and after Colorado got razed by Toronto on Wednesday, the Avs bounced back against Montreal on Thursday. Despite the Toronto shellacking, the Avs are playing well of late, having won eight of their last 10. In addition, their regular season microstats are strong despite the team having endured a plethora of injuries.
Even if Ottawa forces Colorado to chip the puck deep and tries to take away carry-in entries, the Avalanche are dynamic in their puck movement in the offensive zone. They are a team that knows how to use interchanges and rotation to find seams. I fully expect Ottawa’s forwards to sink low, which will clog the slot and allow the Avs to have lots of room and time above the circles. Giving Cale Makar room at the point is not advisable.
If the Avs lose this game, it will be because they are reckless in their puck management and get lacklustre effort in transition defence. Potentially compounding that potential weakness is goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s absence, although when looking at GSAx, there isn’t a drop off from Kuemper to Jonas Johansson.
These two squads squared off last on November 22 in a 12-goal game in which Ottawa tallied five. After being pasted by the Leafs on Wednesday night, the Avs allowed only one goal to Montreal and in expected goals and high-danger chances posted one of their best defensive efforts of the season.
Providing that the Avalanche are still smarting from Wednesday night, I expect a more fastidious effort attending to business outside of the offensive zone. Assuming that happens, I think the Avs will score more than enough goals for a victory, albeit I want the 60-minutes line to grab a palatable price.
Pick: Avalanche -155
Buffalo Sabres at Carolina Hurricanes
Saturday, December 4 – 7:30 PM ET
Is Carolina in trouble? The Hurricanes have lost five of their last six games. They trail Washington and New York in the Metropolitan Division. After a scorching start, this team has come crashing back to earth. But I love grabbing the Hurricanes at their nadir because I anticipate a lively response on Saturday when they are at home against the Sabres before starting a challenging five-game road trip.
The Sabres almost pulled off a miraculous upset against the Florida Panthers on Thursday, taking a 4-1 lead against a team that practically never loses on home ice. Buffalo resorted to the underdog handbook. They tried to slow the game down and not have their forwards caught beneath the puck. They were aggressive trying to force turnovers when Florida was in transition in hopes of triggering a counterattack. And they flew the zone at every opportunity.
To a degree, this worked: Buffalo scored four goals. But unfortunately for the Sabres, their defensive coverage is anemic (they allowed seven), and they gave the Florida puck-carriers way too much respect on entries and in the offensive zone.
The Hurricanes weren’t flat on Thursday; heck, they nearly collected 50 shots on goal. But all three of the Ottawa Senators’ goals came off counterattacks, and the Hurricanes’ forwards could have tracked better, especially since they are propping up a defensive group missing several regulars.
I don’t expect Carolina to deviate from Thursday night’s game plan. The Hurricanes will try to hem Buffalo in its own end with a bevy of cross-corner dump-ins, and Buffalo will struggle to parry a Carolina team that is tremendous at winning the puck along the boards. I think the Hurricanes will find a lot of room in the top half of the ice in the offensive zone, as the Sabres will flop around the lower half of the zone to try to block shots and stave off the offensive siege. Against Ottawa, Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas didn’t get the same room on entries that they will get against Buffalo.
The Hurricanes are purportedly slumping, but in their last half-dozen games they put up excellent metrics in expected goals and high-danger chances. With Antti Raanta in net on Thursday, I expect Frederik Andersen to get the nod on Saturday, giving Carolina the goaltending advantage. The money line number for this game is justifiably absurd, so I’ll take the 60-minute line to achieve a more workable price.
Pick: Hurricanes -170
Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks
Saturday, December 4 – 10 PM ET
In the present and near future, I want to wager all bets against the Canucks. For as long as Travis Green remains the coach, I want to fade this team in every possible way.
The reasons are numerous. At this moment, the Canucks’ analytics stink. With the exception of Conor Garland, their top talent looks listless. Goaltender Thatcher Demko, a potential savior to a woeful defensive group, has been abjectly bad.
And the good times won’t end when Green, inevitably, gets fired. I like Vancouver as an attractive underdog bet with a new coach because its forward group is formidable. However, at this juncture, this team regularly performs way below its potential.
Now, the Canucks are on a two-game winning streak (tying their longest of the season) and will see Pittsburgh come to town on Saturday. The Penguins have dropped their past three games after winning five straight. After Pittsburgh experienced its perennial flurry of injuries, it has gotten much healthier and received terrific goaltending from Tristan Jarry, who has the fifth-best GSAx in the league this season.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I think we will see a lot of chip and chase in this contest. Both teams will be looking to forecheck and cycle. Curiously, the Canucks have shockingly good offensive-zone possession numbers, yet they struggle to generate slot shots when they’re on the attack. I expect their scoring-chances woes to continue against a Penguins defence that is mobile and a team that is proficient at short and intermediate passes as they try to ferry the puck down the ice.
The Canucks can’t relate. Their breakout is dreadful. Their defensive group is content to chip the puck up the boards to the adversary or make an area pass to no one in particular.
Exacerbating the Canucks’ defensive-zone concerns, the Penguins are very good at retrieving the puck in the offensive zone and love to use indirect plays, whether that be a shot-pass toward the net or a bank shot from the off slot to try to create a rebound opportunity in the slot.
The Canucks have been worse at home than on the road. Vancouver is at a disadvantage at 5-on-5 and on special teams. Sidney Crosby has collected points in his last four games. I think there isn’t a lot of time left to bet against Travis Green. I want to capitalize on the opportunities that are left.
Pick: Penguins -145