This is the best time of year. Give me world-class hockey with the highest stakes possible for five hours (or six or seven, depending on overtime) and I am in bliss. Saturday ups the ante, giving us an eye-popping 12 hours of hockey and a surefire way for hockey lovers to antagonize their partners who have other interests. From a betting standpoint, we have a two-game sample size to help predict Saturday’s action, and a multitude of angles are worth examining.
Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals
Saturday, May 7 – 1:00 PM ET
Skepticism shrouded the Florida Panthers as they entered the postseason. A high-octane offence fueled by speed in transition might work during the regular season, but could the Panthers adapt to playoff hockey? Two questions persisted: Could Florida win if they couldn’t rely on the rush, and would their goaltending sink them?
Through two games, I think there is reason to be bullish on the Panthers, despite their splitting at home. As the sagacious Mike Kelly of NHL Network highlighted on Twitter, in Game 1 the Panthers were forced to chip and chase due to a congested neutral zone. This is an action they are loathed to do; in the regular season, they were the most resistant team in the league to dump the puck in.
Game 1 saw the Capitals finish with better expected goals and more high-danger chances. Poor puck management by the Panthers against the Capitals’ 1-3-1 neutral zone formation catalyzed Washington’s upset.
Game 2 brought changes in Florida’s strategy. By using the stretch pass and flying the zone, the Panthers did a much better job creating separation between the Capitals’ defencemen and forwards. All five Florida goals came at 5-on-5, and the Panthers doubled the Capitals in high-danger chances.
Another key difference between Game 1 and Game 2 was the Panthers’ defence. In Game 1, Florida was aimless on its gaps and struggled sorting out defensive assignments. Game 2 was a dramatic improvement, as the Panthers did a much better job of picking up their man and not blowing coverage assignments.
One aspect of Game 3 that I’ll be watching for is how the Capitals attack the Panthers. It seems clear Washington wants to seize on the area below the circles and win with the low cycle, forcing the Panthers to box out and take away sticks in the crease. Florida is wishy-washy defending in this area, so I can understand the Capitals’ rationale, but they also utilized a high cycle during the regular season that at times looked like a basketball weave.
By drawing opponents high, Washington opens up the area down low. While the high cycle presents problems when it explodes, the low cycle risks men getting caught beneath the puck, like on the Mason Marchment goal where a four-man attack outskated the F1 and F2.
The Sergei Bobrovsky situation also bears discussing. When assessing the Panthers’ Cup viability, it was thought he might be an Achilles’ Heel for this team. But so far he has been solid, posting a 1.65 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) and greatly outperforming his competitor Vitek Vanecek, who has posted the worst GSAx of any goaltender during the playoffs.
The Panthers have much more talent at forward, and if they are detailed in their defensive coverage, they can contain Washington. With Bobrovsky playing well, I like the Panthers to cruise in Game 3, although I’m going to take an inflated moneyline price because I would rather risk a little extra than lose with an overtime win.
Pick: Panthers -200
New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Saturday, May 7 – 7:00 PM ET
I am a little surprised by the line here, to be honest. Surprised in a good way, because I am picking the Rangers. I think there are three big strikes against the Pittsburgh Penguins that put them in danger of a hasty playoff exit.
First, the difference in terms of goaltending is mammoth. Through two games, goaltender Igor Shesterkin has a 7.12 GSAx (!). Second place is a tie with a 3.05. Shesterkin has been incredible, and he is facing a third-string goaltender in Louis Domingue, who hasn’t had an NHL sample size of more than two games since 2019-20.
In 16 games with New Jersey, Domingue’s GSAx was -10.69. While that was a few years ago with a much different team in front of him, there are signs that should arouse concern. In Game 2, he had a GSAx of -1.39, and the Frank Vatrano goal was especially weak. The potential for Domingue torpedoing the Penguins seems not just possible, but plausible.
The Penguins are killing the Rangers at 5-on-5, and the Sidney Crosby line has been central in that dominance. In 38:19 time on ice, the Crosby line has outshot the Rangers 39-19 and they are out chancing New York with an outrageous 25-4 differential. The Penguins have five 5-on-5 goals, and four have come from Crosby’s line.
What’s just as important is that three of the Crosby line’s four goals have come off the rush. And the one goal not off the rush -- Jake Guentzel’s goal in Game 1 -- was sparked by the fallout off a rush chance against a discombobulated Rangers team.
The chief problem is that the Rangers haven’t checked well in their transition defence. But the silver lining is that their players are physically present to make a play, rather than lagging many feet behind. If the Rangers players lock down their men, I think the Penguins will struggle to score, because in Games 1 and Game 2, their forecheck and cycle have been inconsistent.
The Rangers on the other hand have more variety in how they’ve attacked. They’ve been dangerous on the cycle with the F3 sometimes getting lost and then reappearing in the slot for chances and sometimes goals. They’ve thrived on their neutral zone regroups, hemming in a tired Penguins team, as with the Chris Kreider goal in Game 2 where Marcus Pettersson and John Marino were gassed and that allowed Kreider to move without resistance to the middle slot for the tip.
Finally, the Rangers have won the special teams battle so far. New York has two power-play goals and has played the Penguins to a draw when Pittsburgh is on the man advantage. The Rangers were a top-seven team in both the power play and the PK during the regular season, so their superlative play in special teams computes.
If the Crosby line does not bring its A-game, this seems like a certain loss. Add in New York’s goaltending edge, and I love the moneyline price here.
Pick: Rangers -118
Calgary Flames at Dallas Stars
Saturday, May 7 – 9:30 PM ET
Offence has been scarce in this series. In Game 1, only one goal was scored and it was on the power play. In Game 2, only one goal was scored with a goaltender in net. The Flames were one of the best offences in the NHL during the regular season, but Dallas has stifled them.
People don’t talk about Calgary this way, but the Flames have an offensive shtick. They run pet plays such as a handoff sweep from Matthew Tkachuk to Johnny Gaudreau, followed by Gaudreau looking to find his cutting shooter. Other times, from behind the net, Gaudreau or Tkachuk will set up and try to find Elias Lindholm in the slot.
There also is the Gaudreau weak-side leak out to initiate the transition. The Flames are normally very good at filling the lane on the rush to help create time and room. And they love to double-stack players in the slot on the cycle, eliminating the sightline of the goaltender. In game after game during the regular season, they dismantled opponents by using all of these plays.
But the playoffs are a different beast and Dallas did its homework. Through two games, Dallas has done a really good job of taking Calgary’s options away. Especially in Game 2, goaltender Jake Oettinger was rarely if ever screened. The Stars stepped up at the blue line and were tight on their gaps, eliminating the rush. And they defended the middle slot superbly. The Flames’ response to this was to try to attack from angles as a way to eschew shooting into the Stars’ shot-blockers. But Dallas deserves credit for mostly taking away those second-chance opportunities.
The reason to love the Flames in Game 3 is because I think a few tweaks will gin up enough offence to win. I suspect we’ll see more fly-by tip plays, more attempts to jam the puck into the crease from acute angles, and quicker decision-making from the forwards and defencemen when making plays in the offensive zone.
If the Stars have time to position themselves, they can eliminate the shooting and passing lanes. This was a lesson learned repeatedly in Game 2. Some of the Flames’ best looks in Game 2 came off counterattacks because Dallas had to defend on the move, and Calgary is really fast.
For as well as the Stars defend, and Oettinger has been tremendous, they are also a one-line team. If the Joe Pavelski line registers zero points, will Dallas get secondary scoring? I am doubtful, especially with Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom in top form.
With home ice, the Stars can match lines, but their margin for error is thin. There is a reason why this team had a -8 goal differential during the regular season. The Flames have been consistent all season, and I expect a big response after their loss. I think the power play and a big effort from the Gaudreau line will make the difference.
Pick: Flames -170