Goodbyes are never easy. With the last weekend of the regular season knocking at the door, we need to bid adieu to fading some of our favourite doormats and chumps. The playoffs will be a welcome amp-up in intensity, but before we pivot, I’d like to invest in the misfortunes of three woeful franchises one last time.
Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings
Saturday, April 23 – 12:30 PM ET
Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 are old news. The Penguins have lost at the first opportunity in their last three playoff rounds, and even the sportsbooks view them pessimistically – only the Capitals have longer odds to win the Eastern Conference.
Contributing to that backdrop is a messy present where the Penguins are sputtering. In their last fourteen games, they have five wins. With the postseason starting in less than two weeks, Pittsburgh needs to find stability, and fast.
The Detroit Red Wings can offer the Penguins temporary relief this Saturday. The Red Wings’ expected goals and high-danger chances percentage at 5-on-5 this month are horrific, and even when Detroit ekes out a win, it can seem miraculous. To wit, the Red Wings have three wins over the Bruins, Hurricanes and Lightning in the month of April, but in all three games they were badly outshot. Against Tampa Bay, Detroit allowed the fewest shots, but it still conceded 41 shots on goal.
The Red Wings bested Tampa Bay on Tuesday night because of goaltender Thomas Greiss and the Lightning squandering opportunities. Detroit looked so bad at different points in the game, it almost seemed as if Greiss’s own players were conspiring against him.
The Red Wings’ defencemen committed numerous turnovers while attempting to execute their breakout. They couldn’t box out. The Lightning produced quality looks by utilizing their defencemen when Detroit collapsed in the slot. And the Lightning ran set plays off faceoffs and from behind their own net that worked at every step but the finish.
In the Red Wings’ losses this month, a big problem has been scoring, which is only compounded by the season-ending injury to captain Dylan Larkin. Detroit has a few capable players who can attack off the rush, but they are clearly trying to employ more of a forechecking approach. Unfortunately for Detroit, the forecheck looks toothless when so much time is spent chasing the puck in your own end. In the first and third periods, the Lightning defencemen didn’t face much pressure because Detroit’s forwards were gassed and needed to leave the ice.
The Penguins had mixed success trying to play a puck-control, cycle game against Boston on Thursday night. While some chances were generated off the forecheck, the Penguins’ first two goals (when the game was still competitive) came off the rush. In both sequences, Pittsburgh demonstrated quick passing in the neutral zone.
It was a game where the good needs to be weighed with the bad. The Penguins’ breakout struggled, but they also were more careful not to leave themselves vulnerable on the rush. The goaltending was perfect, allowing zero goals on a whopping 52 shots. Unfortunately, Casey DeSmith, the Penguins’ backup, was in net, not Tristan Jarry, the presumptive starter for the postseason. Nevertheless, I think Pittsburgh’s strategy of grinding to win and letting the rush develop organically was a smart approach, one that will translate well against Detroit.
Detroit’s defensive group is awful, so Pittsburgh should be able to easily access the offensive zone on entries or generate turnovers off the forecheck. The Red Wings can really struggle to move the puck up ice, and if the Penguins stay patient, they can shred Detroit when its players are exhausted and desperate for a line change.
Returning to the ice on Saturday will be Evgeni Malkin, who is coming off a four-game suspension. The loss of Detroit’s Larkin and addition of Pittsburgh’s Malkin is an equation I want to opt into.
Even though April has been a rough month for Pittsburgh, its underlying metrics are strong. The Penguins need to win this game to find a semblance of good mojo before the playoffs, and the Red Wings are usually cooked unless they get a spectacular goaltending performance. Even though Pittsburgh is on the road, I’ll grab the regulation line.
Pick: Penguins -170
Carolina Hurricanes at New Jersey Devils
Saturday, April 23 – 12:30 PM ET
The Carolina Hurricanes’ strength is their very deep forward group, yet their success hinges on their defencemen. From keeping tight gaps and executing a clean first pass to the pressure the Carolina rearguards add to the offensive attack on the rush and cycle, the Canes’ fortunes are determined by what they get from the back end.
Against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Hurricanes’ defensive group will be tasked with halting their opponent’s stretch passes and long passes in general. The Devils are playing without superstar forward Jack Hughes, but their rush offence is still a force to be reckoned with. If Carolina is lackadaisical on its gaps and gives New Jersey clean entries, an upset is in play.
If the Hurricanes’ forwards give their defencemen support to step up in the neutral zone and hold the blue lines, that inevitably will fuel the team’s counterattack. But it is the cycle and retrieval offence for Carolina that I think are most primed to dismantle New Jersey. The Hurricanes like to use the low-to-high play to stretch out opponents, and then harness mid-slot tips and weak-side pinches to short-circuit their foes’ coverage. The Devils’ defensive coverage is very shaky, so the Hurricanes should find open looks if they trap the Devils in their own end.
I think New Jersey will struggle on its zone exits Saturday. Carolina is adept at sealing the perimeter and will be a disruptive force should New Jersey heave a long pass. If the Devils attempt to complete several short passes in their own end, possibly through the middle of the ice, it will likely lead to the Hurricanes forcing turnovers.
The Devils’ goaltending is an unmistakable question mark. Andrew Hammond demonstrated how quickly his position can go from hero to villain in a few days, as he arguably won the game against Vegas on Tuesday, then torpedoed his team’s chances against Buffalo on Thursday. In the month of April, only Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka has a worse Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) than Hammond. The Hurricanes will be missing goaltender Frederik Andersen, adding some uncertainty, but for Carolina the assignment is to shoot from anywhere and everywhere.
The Devils have been better at home than on the road, and the struggles from the Hurricanes of late (they have a 5-5 record in their last ten games) do raise concerns. But on the season, Carolina has been one of the NHL’s best, and powerhouses usually don’t slump for long. With the Hurricanes battling against the New York Rangers for Metropolitan Division supremacy, I think they take care of business on Saturday. I’ll take them in regulation to make the price digestible.
Pick: Hurricanes -135
St. Louis Blues at Arizona Coyotes
Saturday, April 23 – 10:00 PM ET
In regular season hockey betting, there is a sense of finality to any streak. No team can win continuously, nor can a team lose for an eternity. The Arizona Coyotes are determined to carve out an exception.
There is a distinct possibility that Arizona will lose the remainder of its games. With the Coyotes’ defeat in overtime on Wednesday night to the hapless Chicago Blackhawks, they may have botched their best attempt to snap their losing streak. Finishing the season with 13 straight losses is not only in play but with Arizona facing five playoff-bound (or in Dallas’s case, possibly postseason-bound) teams to finish the slate, it is looking likely.
The Coyotes play on Friday night, which means they will see the St. Louis Blues, who are the hottest team in the Western Conference, on the second game of a back-to-back Saturday. During the Blues’ nine-game win streak – which was snapped by the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night— they never scored less than four goals. The Blues have scored six or more goals five times during their winning streak, and in their loss just before the streak began, they were defeated by the Edmonton Oilers 6-5 in overtime. In their last dozen games, the Blues are finding the back of the net with staggering frequency.
The case for the puck line isn’t complicated. The Blues excel at protecting the puck on the cycle and are deadly at connecting on short-to-intermediate passes on the rush. They have a plethora of forwards who can score; eight players have 19 or more goals. The Blues also have an elite power play, currently ranked 2nd in the NHL, and there was only one contest in their last eleven games where they didn’t convert on the man advantage. The Coyotes have the worst penalty kill in the league.
At 5-on-5, the Coyotes struggle to keep the puck out of their end, and when playing without the puck, defensive coverage is a struggle. Arizona’s goaltending situation is so dire that St. Louis might prefer seeing Vejmelka, the Coyotes’ regular starter, in net. But backup Harri Sateri hasn’t been lights out in recent action either, posting a
-5.22 GSAx in April.
With the Minnesota Wild and Blues both fighting for home-ice advantage, I don’t think St. Louis will take Arizona lightly. The Blues can score in bunches, and Arizona playing its third game in four nights could translate into a fatigued squad. Even when they are playing with fresh legs, no one pairs bad with a heavy dose of sad quite like the Coyotes. A Coyotes’ team running on empty is a frightening vision. I will happily grab the Blues’ puck line.
Pick: Blues -135