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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bet for Leafs-Bruins Game 7

Joseph Woll Brad Marchand Toronto Maple Leafs Boston Bruins Joseph Woll Brad Marchand - The Canadian Press

To make a deep run in the NHL playoffs, sometimes a team just needs to survive. For the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, losing Game 7 would be absolutely devastating: a team with a strong body of work from the regular season that had an epic collapse or a team that overcame a huge series deficit falling short.

For the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, the first round was less a battle for survival than a demanding work week. Tiring, yes. But also ephemeral. The Rangers won four games in a row, and the Hurricanes won in five. Both have had time to rest, which is advantageous before what promises to be a grueling, tightly fought series.

From a betting standpoint, we’re getting a sense of what to expect and who to back. I’m happy to provide my findings.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins
Saturday May 4 – 8:00 PM ET


This has been a bad week for the Bruins. Despite the Maple Leafs missing superstar Auston Matthews, Boston squandered an opportunity to close out the series in Game 5 even with a tremendous performance by goaltender Jeremy Swayman. The Bruins wilted against the Maple Leafs’ forecheck and surrendered the puck frequently.

Most concerning was that Toronto wised up and put in goaltender Joseph Woll to replace the wobbly Ilya Samsonov. Woll was outstanding. When the Bruins made a third period push in Game 5 and created seven high-danger chances at 5-on-5, Woll’s play forced overtime. Losing Game 5 wasn’t the end of the world as long as Boston took care of business in Game 6, to avoid a repeat of last year’s nightmarish first-round implosion. Oops.

The Bruins have stated their desire to get the puck below the goal line and to work the Maple Leafs’ defensive group. A lot of offence for Boston this season was engineered from below the goal line and by spreading teams out, going low-to-high, or hitting the F3 in in the high slot. But the body isn’t always compliant with the mind.

In Game 6, the Bruins’ forecheck was virtually absent. Perhaps the Bruins’ best forecheck came in the waning moments of the game when Trent Frederic found the puck in the slot after Morgan Geekie and Brad Marchand effectively flooded the wall. The excitement was short-lived, as Frederic failed to score and moments later Toronto’s William Nylander converted on his second goal of the game.

The odd part of the Bruins’ Game 6 strategy was the lack of cohesion on the forecheck. The support was too fragmented and the Bruins’ defencemen too passive. Some of the problem for Boston was losing board battles, but a lot of the time it was the F2 and F3’s failure to put pressure on the puck. Toronto exited its zone way too easily.

Still, the Maple Leafs deserve credit. As NHL Network’s Mike Kelly noted on X, the Maple Leafs have 21 scoring chances created off successful forecheck plays at 5-on-5, greatly outpacing other postseason teams. They are checking madmen, not giving the Bruins space to make plays on the breakout and in the neutral zone.

Also, in the dirty areas the Maple Leafs are overpowering the Bruins. It is striking how many times the Bruins gain entry cleanly but are shunted into a one-and-done or lose the puck entirely. The Maple Leafs have been faster and better with managing the puck. And in Woll they have a goaltender who can equal Swayman.

The Bruins finished Thursday’s game with 16 high-danger chances and a better expected goals, and there were moments when they stretched the ice and had success. The Bruins incorporated long passes and misdirection to traverse the neutral zone. Boston tried to push the puck up ice using flip passes and stretch passes, but also feigned the long pass to its forwards at the far blue line as a way to pave a path for an underneath player to scurry through the middle zone without much protest. Upon entry, the Bruins’ first wave effectively interfered and pushed back the defence as a means to create time and room for the puck-carrier. This didn’t lead to any goals, but it provides a roadmap for how Boston could enter the offensive zone with numbers and possibly keep possession in Game 7.

But the Bruins likely won’t win by the rush alone. Which means that Boston’s use of its defencemen as playmakers to pull the puck toward center ice and shoot into traffic in hopes of a tip and rebound will be critical. In Game 6, the Maple Leafs were clinical at boxing out and keeping the low slot tidy, but using their defensemen’s mobility to create offence off shots from the point an obvious way for the Boston to probe and burrow into the interior.

With Matthews likely out for Game 7, I don’t think the game plan changes much for Toronto. The cycle and forecheck have been working, and with Nylander and Mitch Marner playing their best, those two can shed their opponent one-on-one and heave a puck into traffic or pass into the slot. Even though the Maple Leafs’ 5-on-5 success during the regular season was predicated on their ability to obtain slot slots, the focus without Matthews becomes less high risk plays and more about puck support.

Can the Bruins forfeit a 3-1 series lead two seasons in a row? Watching Boston play two poor games consecutively makes me wonder whether it can stave off a cruel destiny and claw out a win in Game 7. With how well Woll is playing, even a much- improved Bruins team might not be able to score against a stingy Maple Leafs squad.

Regardless, given how access to the slot has nearly evaporated and the excellent play behind the net, I anticipate one or both goaltenders allowing one goal or less and am happy to grab the under.

Pick: Under 5.5 Total Goals -120

Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers

The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy. They should be proud. But I expect them to lose Sunday’s game, and this series, because the Hurricanes are a very bad matchup for New York.

Sometimes hockey can be simple: Spending time away from your goal is a recipe for winning. During the regular season, the Hurricanes were in the 99th percentile for least amount of time in their defensive zone; they readily employ stretch passes, flip passes, and a one-touch-and-out breakout to help expedite the puck’s journey out of the zone.

Even when opponents do get time in the offensive zone, manufacturing offence is onerous against Carolina. The Hurricanes were elite in defending cycle chances and slot passes allowed this season, and against the Islanders in the first round the Hurricanes posted a gaudy differential.  Carolina finished with 30 (!) more cycle chances and 13 more slot shots.

One thing we saw in the Islanders series was that Carolina’s rush nicely complemented its redoubtable forecheck. That spells trouble for the Rangers, who were one of the worst NHL teams in rush defence during the regular season. A lot is made of the Rangers’ 1-3-1, but if the Hurricanes can beat the forecheckers up the ice, they will find room to hit the trailer. The Rangers’ trouble sorting out their coverage in transition is likely to be intensified against the Hurricanes.

Could the Rangers’ special teams decide this series? Possibly, but not likely. New York has an excellent power play, which helped carry them to victory against the Washington Capitals. But Carolina has a terrific penalty kill, layering the slot to take away the cross-seam pass. Furthermore, it will be aggressive on entries and when trying to recover pucks. Carolina also has a stellar power-play unit that utilizes rotation and motion. So, I don’t see special teams being an advantage either way. During the regular season, both teams’ power play and penalty kill were top three in the league.

The same goes for goaltending. During the regular season, Igor Shesterkin had a slightly better Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) than Frederik Andersen and that has continued during the playoffs. But though Shesterkin is capable of elevating his play and being the much superior goaltender, the edge New York enjoys looks modest if you go by the growing sample size.

The top of the Rangers’ lineup can keep this series close. The Vincent Trocheck line, especially, has been a force all season. But more likely, I see the Hurricanes hemming in the Rangers, with New York’s extended defensive zone time leading to its coverage short-circuiting.

The Rangers can leave the weak-side defencemen open, and I fully expect the Hurricanes to prey on that as they ping the puck around the offensive zone. Carolina can move its players around like chess pieces, with the high F3, net-front players, and defencemen working in concert to generate a slot opportunity. I don’t know if Carolina will win it all this year, but I do think they will advance to the conference finals.

Picks: Hurricanes Game 1 Moneyline -115 & Hurricanes to win the series -162