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Intelligent Hockey: Best bets for Saturday’s slate

Jacques Martin Ottawa Senators Jacques Martin - The Canadian Press

Check out the odds to win the Eastern Conference on FanDuel and there is a distinctive tier system. Toronto, Carolina, New York Rangers, Boston, New Jersey, and Florida comprise Tier I -- the serious heavyweights. Tier II is small, with really only Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh finding odds longer than +1000, but shorter than +2000.

Tier III has the longshots, teams that may make the playoffs but are viewed as likely first-round exits (New York Islanders, Detroit, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Buffalo). And finally, embedded in Tier IV is the “We don’t take you seriously” clique with odds of +6500 or longer to win the East. Washington, Columbus, and Montreal round out that grouping.

In betting, stratification should be viewed as an ally, not a foe, since identifying matchups of lower-tier teams that can punch above their weight against higher-tier opponents yields puck line plays and favorable moneyline conditions.

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators

Saturday, December 23 – 7 PM ET

Normally, it isn’t advisable to hop on a sinking ship. The optimism that surrounded the Ottawa Senators before the season has all but capsized, as they currently sit last in the Eastern Conference. With off-the-ice issues bubbling up and players airing public frustration at fans for booing, the vibes aren’t great.

Firing a coach often leads to a new-coach bump, and new strategic tweaks can invigorate a team for a fleeting moment. But the Senators haven’t yet reaped the benefits from the jettisoning of D.J. Smith for Jacques Martin as interim coach. 

On Tuesday, the Senators surrendered a 3-0 lead and lost 4-3 to the Arizona Coyotes, and on Thursday they forfeited a 4-3, third-period lead and lost to the Colorado Avalanche 6-4. Two games into his most recent coaching stint, Martin is still looking for his first win. C'est si triste!

And yet, wearing my betting cap, losing six straight games and firing Smith does feel like the on-ice nadir for Ottawa. Through that lens, things can only go up! There is a lot of talent in this lineup, and Martin’s wish to make Ottawa a more aggressive team that challenges in the neutral zone and applies a more imposing forecheck are goals that, if executed, would make Ottawa frisky and a good buy low.

On Saturday night, the Senators have a beatable opponent in the mercurial Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that has also fallen short of expectations due to crippling inconsistency. But as of this writing, we are catching Pittsburgh leaving work on a high note, George Costanza style. 

On Thursday night against Carolina, Pittsburgh toppled the Carolina Hurricanes by slowing the game down. The Penguins leaned into a forecheck-centric approach, a move designed to mitigate the problems they’ve had with allowing rush chances. This weakness flared up last Saturday, when an Auston Matthews-less Maple Leafs squad drubbed Pittsburgh 7-0 and the Penguins yielded 11 rush chances.

I see multiple avenues for Ottawa to win this matchup. In the Senators’ loss to the Avs, they showcased their rush game, harnessing the one-touch pass to zip through the neutral zone and attack off the rush. If this turns into a more tight-checking matchup, the Penguins’ defensive group is susceptible to giving away the puck by forcing it up the walls. If the Senators can seal off that outlet and have their defencemen press, they can attack the Penguins below the circles and force Pittsburgh to box them out around the crease.

If this were a cartoon, the audience would see the unwitting character unaware an anvil was about to fall on their head. Multiple wins for Pittsburgh have generally led to disaster. In the three instances this season where the Penguins have had a win streak of two or more, their next loss was by three goals twice and seven once.

Betting on a team with a goaltending disadvantage isn’t ideal. Ottawa goaltender Joonas Korpisalo has been among the worst in the NHL, and his Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) ranks in the bottom four. But if the Senators can tighten up defensively and keep the puck in the offensive zone, they have the personnel to triumph over Pittsburgh.

Pick: Senators Moneyline -114

New York Islanders at Carolina Hurricanes

Saturday, December 23 – 7:30 PM ET

The Carolina Hurricanes are the NHL’s most interesting example of perception versus reality in terms of Stanley Cup viability. On FanDuel, the Hurricanes have legroom in business class. Only the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights have shorter odds. The Los Angeles Kings rank in the top five in points percentage and are elite in the advanced stats, yet they have longer odds.

The problem is that the Hurricanes’ results have been so unremarkable. With 33 games played, they have won only one more game than they have lost. Doubts about their scoring prowess being sufficient for a Stanley Cup run haven’t exactly been squashed with their 3.21 goals per game, which ranks them 14th in the NHL.

While their advanced stats are strong as usual, it is the same drumbeat with the Canes that we have seen in years past. High shot volume, a reliance on scoring by committee and their defencemen, and a stingy man-on-man defence over 200 feet will overcome opponents who on paper possess more skill. But the long-term absence of goaltender Frederik Andersen should raise questions about whether the current roster needs to be tweaked for Carolina to avoid another postseason run without a Stanley Cup final appearance. In the immediate term, the question is whether they deserve the same respect they have garnered in seasons past.

The Islanders play the Hurricanes tough. We saw that in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and in the two games they have played this season, both overtime contests. In fact, playing close games has been an Islanders specialty of late. Since 11/15, over the course of 18 games, the Islanders have lost by two or more goals only once, and that was last Saturday on the second of a back-to-back. Getting the Islanders at a reasonable puck line number is an absolute gift, especially when considering New York has tried and true strategies to disrupt the Hurricanes and gin up offence.

The Islanders will look to exploit the Hurricanes’ man-on-man defence in myriad ways. Expect New York to use the forward and defenceman interchange to drag the Hurricanes’ defenceman to the point and then attack the low slot. The Islanders will happily test the limits of interfering with picks (and by swatting away sticks) on rush plays to open up skating and shooting lanes. And they will demand that the Hurricanes box them out as they shoot into traffic to try to create rebounds and tips. Drawing the Hurricanes to the outside and then beating them to the interior will create confusion for Carolina’s defensive zone coverage.

Of course, the Islanders have defensive zone issues of their own, and Carolina will be happy to prey on them. With the Islanders’ injuries on the back end, Carolina will use its forecheck to press New York and generate turnovers and extensive zone time.

But one large reason the Islanders have remained close in so many games since Nov. 15 has been Ilya Sorokin, who has the fourth-best GSAx over that span of time. With Semyon Varlamov getting the last start, I expect Sorokin to get the start and give New York a pronounced edge.

With the Hurricanes at home, the Jordan Staal line can be deployed to shut down either the Mathew Barzal line or Brock Nelson triumvirate. But New York has a viable scoring line that can pick up the slack with the more advantageous Carolina line matchup. This, combined with a scorching hot Islanders power play and the goaltending advantage with Sorokin, has me loving the Islanders’ puck line.

Pick: Islanders Puck line (+1.5) -160

Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

Saturday, December 23 – 7:30 PM ET

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the first novel of one of my favourite writers. I was struck by how someone now critically acclaimed and whose craft looks effortless once came across as so raw. But talent doesn’t always impose itself from Day 1. Sometimes it needs to be nurtured and tended.

The Buffalo Sabres are still in the first-novel stage, where they use too many fancy words and their plots are inventive but borderline incoherent. When the creative juices are flowing, they look awesome – see Thursday’s 9-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. When they make too many unforced errors, they look messy – see Tuesday’s 9-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Sabres entering Saturday’s game are different than the Sabres at almost any point this season as they finally, mercifully, have their full complement back. Injuries sapped the team of critical players for the first few months of the season.

And when Buffalo has its lineup at close to full health, the sheer volume of first-round picks is astonishing. Eight of the 12 forwards are first-round picks, with Tage Thompson being the lowest of the first-round picks at 26th overall. Four of the forwards are former top-10 picks. On the back end are two first-overall picks who are closely featured in the offence. From a talent standpoint, the Sabres can more than hold their own against the Rangers.

Against the Leafs on Thursday night, Buffalo incorporated give-and-go’s to traverse the neutral zone, and with the Rangers’ struggles to defend the rush there would appear to be an opportunity for Buffalo to pounce on a team that can sink too deep against entries or have trouble sorting out coverage. But where I see this game being won and lost is on Buffalo’s ability to use the area below the goal line.

Toronto had a clear agenda on Tuesday night against New York and that was to expose the Rangers’ sometimes stiff zone coverage and feed the F3 for slot shots. Despite Toronto losing the game, the Leafs hit on a weakness for New York, and Buffalo will want to use the area behind the net as a platform for playmaking as they wait for the F3 to get lost in coverage.

This strategy of playing below the circles also serves a dual purpose: it forces the Rangers to go 200 feet against Buffalo. The Sabres will layer their forecheck, so one would hope that, as New York leaves its end, Buffalo will close those lanes.

How the Sabres find balance with their different points of attack will be fascinating. Buffalo really likes to feed the trailer on the rush and bring the forward to the point to stretch out the opposing defence, but those tactics are riskier given New York’s capability of counterattacking.

Against Edmonton on Friday night, the Rangers will play backup Jonathan Quick, which means Buffalo will see Igor Shesterkin on Saturday. Shesterkin has been victimized high glove this season to an impressive degree, and Buffalo certainly has the shooters who can fill up the top half of the net. But to have that opportunity, Buffalo will need to manage the puck better, especially on breakouts. Too much distance between the Buffalo forwards and defencemen could lead to disaster.

The Rangers have been the model of consistency and, if they win on Friday night, they will have won four in a row. But Buffalo at full health has the talent to keep pace with a Rangers team playing its second of a back-to-back. I think the Sabres can win, and I certainly think they can force overtime or keep the game within a goal. 

Pick: Sabres Puck line (+1.5) -144