NHL CONFERENCE FINALS PREVIEWS & PREDICTIONS
- EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL BY BRANDON WAMSLEY
- WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL BY BROCK HARTLEY
M2 – NEW YORK RANGERS (52-24-6) +160 FanDuel
A3 – TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (51-23-8) -175 DraftKings
The reigning champs will retain their title for at least one more series and with what we just witnessed in their dismantling of Florida, they might maintain ownership of the Cup for longer than that. Heading into the Battle of Florida we expected a tight, hard-fought series. After all, we had the 2-time defending champions against the Presidents Trophy winners with talent all over the place on both sides. Instead, a series everyone was excited for became a blowout and lasted the minimum. It only took Tampa Bay 4 games to dispatch the regular season’s best team and arguably the biggest test they had remaining in the East.
The biggest reason the Lightning swept the Panthers has a familiar face, and wears number 88. Andrei Vasilevskiy proved once again that he IS the best goaltender on the planet. Heading into the series with Florida I noted that Vasilevskiy struggled in the opening round against Toronto and received a couple messages with a “How dare you” tone. I love watching Vasilevskiy play and will not argue he’s the best in hockey. I even added that note expecting him to rebound but the fact is he simply wasn’t good in the first round. Vasilevskiy’s numbers against Toronto could be a fluke attributed to small sample size, or it could be that Toronto was just that good against him. It’s probably a bit of both but with what we witnessed against Florida, everyone should now realize this wasn’t the normal choke job in Toronto, they just ran into a nightmare Round 1. After performing below average in the first series, Andrei Vasilevskiy was absolutely brilliant allowing only 3 goals in 4 games and oh yeah, he kept that streak alive we mentioned before with another shutout in a series clinching game. Over the course of the series Vasilevskiy posted a .981 SV%, .75 GAA, and by far his most impressive stat, he saved 10 goals above expected. Yes, Vasilevskiy allowed only 3 goals where 13.84 were expected. So almost 11. That is simply unbelievable over the course of 4 games.
With Vasilevskiy back in form it is going to be extremely difficult for anyone to beat the Lightning. Goaltending wasn’t the only great aspect of Tampa’s game either, Nikita Kucherov posted 7 points in 4 games and surprisingly Corey Perry led the team with 3 goals. Tampa Bay is now getting A-1 goaltending, star performances up top, and depth scoring. Sound familiar? It should and it should scare every non-Lightning fan until someone finally beats them.
I picked the New York Rangers before the playoffs started to make it to the ECF. You won’t hear me take a shred of credit for it because they got here in a way I never imagined. I picked against the Rangers from Game 5 of series 1 onward, and after witnessing them escape Pittsburgh after being dominated more than any winning team ever has in a playoff series, I thought Round 2 would be the end of the line for the Rangers, Igor Shesterkin had other plans. After the home team won the first 6 games in an unprecedented home/away, win/loss streak for the Carolina Hurricanes, New York took down Carolina in Game 7, handing the Hurricanes their first loss at home of the entire playoffs. New York has survived thus far because of Igor Shesterkin just like they have all season. We knew coming into the playoffs that the Rangers would go as far as Igor could carry them. After watching them against Pittsburgh, it didn’t look like he could carry them any further regardless of how great he played.
The Rangers did manage to play better in front of him against Carolina and Shesterkin elevated his play to an All-World level which proved to be just enough for the Rangers to escape another 7-game series. The Rangers had the lower end of the xGF% in 11 of 14 games so far this postseason. This means they were outplayed at 5 on 5 in all but 3 games this entire postseason and to add even more craziness to that stat, New York actually lost all 3 games that they won the 5v5 battle. So, all 8 of the Rangers’ Playoff victories came in games where they were the lesser team for the majority of the game. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t ever remember that happening since the stat was tracked. So how good was Shesterkin to win 4 games against Carolina in which he faced more shots than his opponent in every game? Well for the series his stat line looked like this: .949 SV%, 1.72 GAA, and 12.82 GSAx. He also managed 2 huge assists in Game 6 to help the Rangers beat Carolina who played arguably their best road game of the playoffs. Elsewhere, the trade deadline additions proved once again that New York nailed the 2 biggest moves they made at the deadline this season. Andrew Copp posted 5 points and Frank Vatrano had 3 but they made their play visible in other aspects, Vatrano with 13 hits along with 12 blocks and Copp added the missing piece on the Rangers power play that became vital in their victory.
Finally, Mika Zibanejad has been the Rangers best skater the entire postseason and he is the biggest reason they were able to advance that isn’t in net. Not only did Zibanejad lead the team in scoring (8P, 4G/4A), he came through with the timely plays the Rangers needed seemingly every step of the way.
So finally, what does all of this mean when these 2 get on the ice and face off for the Prince of Wales Trophy and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line? Well New York has survived because of their special teams, and by dominating the goaltending battle in their first 2 series. We could dive deep into the numbers, but it doesn’t seem necessary for this series after that lone analysis. The two advantages that allowed the Rangers to survive up to this point, will now become disadvantages in the ECF. Shesterkin should already have the Vezina on his mantle, we know where that award is going. However, Shesterkin put on his best performance against Carolina and had numbers that seemingly could not be topped but Vasilevskiy was even better against a much more potent opponent in the Panthers. Vasilevskiy has been the only goaltender to outperform Shesterkin this postseason. That is going to be a huge problem for New York.
If you dive into trying to figure out how the Rangers made it this far there is only 1 answer, they have had a huge edge in net. First, they got to face the worst goaltending of the playoffs in Louis Domingue, who you can’t blame, he was simply a 3rd string goalie looking like a 3rd string goalie. Then despite a solid effort from Antti Raanta, Shesterkin gapped him in every metric in the Carolina series and gave the Rangers enough of an edge to win in 7. The New York Power play was also huge with timely goals, scoring the first 2 in Game 7 against Carolina, a game in which the first goal was going to go a long way in deciding the outcome. So here it is, you get the Rangers who have been worse 5v5 in every game they won, playing the best team they have played so far, the best power play they will have faced by FAR, and the one goalie alive better than Shesterkin. Goodluck. If we can search for any silver lining imaginable it would be that with every game Tampa gets more tired and more beat up. That is why getting through Florida in only 4 games becomes even more important for the Lightning. Igor Shesterkin is capable of stealing multiple games in a series, maybe another silver lining could be that all the action he is sure to see can keep him hot, while going long stretches without a shot can hopefully cool off Vasilevskiy. If the Rangers are somehow able to win this series, the shot differential may even have an inverse effect.
After what we just witnessed from Tampa Bay, I think there is only 1 team left that can stop the 3-peat and it isn’t the New York Rangers. I’ve recommended betting on Tampa Bay while picking against them in the first 2 series, I’m sure our superstitious gamblers reading would love for me to just maintain the status quo and pick New York, but we aren’t going down that path again. Pick Tampa Bay, bet on Tampa Bay, the End. I don’t care about black cats, broken mirrors, or jinxes. Tampa Bay will win this series. (Yes, that was on purpose).
PICK: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING.
C1 – COLORADO AVALANCHE (56-19-7) -240 FanDuel
P2 – EDMONTON OILERS (49-27-6) +200 BetMGM
Oh boy, here we go. These NHL playoff matchups have certainly not been disappointing, especially in the Western Conference. After a chaotic “Battle of Alberta” in Round 2, we now get to witness Mackinnon vs McDavid in a best-of-7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. This matchup has shades of Crosby vs Ovechkin. Honestly, this may be better. Colorado had a little more trouble with St. Louis in Round 2 than I expected. Meanwhile, Edmonton carved through Calgary’s stingy defensive structure with ease, which also caught me by surprise. So, what can we expect here?
I think the winner of this series could come down to coaching, specifically the coaching of the man behind Colorado’s bench – Jared Bednar. I believe his decision making could be the difference in keeping Edmonton’s superstars under control or allowing McDavid & Draisaitl to run rampant, effectively turning this series into a barn burner where Colorado will need to outscore two of the best hockey players on planet Earth. I feel like the best approach is relatively simple and perhaps a tad obvious, but if coaching were that easy, more people would do it. If Colorado is going to reach the Stanley Cup Final, I would like to see the Mackinnon line matched up against McDavid as much as possible.
Specifically, I would like to see the trio of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Nichushkin reunited. My thinking here is simple: that line’s ability to maintain possession and cycle the puck will force McDavid to spend more time in the defensive zone. I realize that this is easier said than done, but if you want to limit his damage, I believe that will be done more effectively by keeping him on the other side of the ice, rather than trying to control him with a defensive-minded forward like we saw Los Angeles do with Danault in Round 1. Beyond that, the Mackinnon line should also produce goals – or they will need to at least. If MacKinnon & company can go tit-for-tat with McDavid in terms of goals, Colorado’s depth should outmatch Edmonton’s, giving the Avs a sizable edge.
Another edge the Avs should have is between the pipes. Darcy Kuemper has yet to display the same level of performance in the postseason that he did down the stretch in the regular season, but he’s been adequate – and sometimes, when you have a team like Colorado playing in front of you, adequate is enough. Mike Smith, on the other hand, has been having trouble with consistency. He’s had some stellar performances thus far in the postseason, but he’s also had some lousy ones. He won’t have much wiggle room against this high-octane Avalanche attack. Smith has a .19 edge over Kuemper in GSAA/60, but he may have to widen that gap if the Oilers are going to advance. Whoever can provide the most stability in goal will make the game a lot easier for the guys in front of them, and from what we’ve seen so far, I would expect Kuemper to prevail in that category.
The defensive corps of both Colorado and Edmonton have their work cut out for them. The Oilers will have to deal with the depth of the Avs. Which means more often than not their bottom pairing of Barrie & Kulak will have to make some plays in front of their net, as well as get physical behind the net. That isn’t exactly Barrie’s strong suit. The Top 4 won’t have things much easier when they have to protect against one of the top lines in hockey, as well as a 2nd line that features notable pest Nazem Kadri. Except he isn’t just a pest. He’s found his form and has been producing points like a C1.
After finishing the regular season with a stat-line of 28g-59a-87p, he’s maintained a point per game pace in the postseason, with 5 goals and 5 assists thus far. On the flip side, I think most people would agree that the Avs have a far superior D-corps. Arguably the best in the league. However, they will be going up against the most prolific scoring duo in the NHL in McDavid & Draisaitl, as well as Evander Kane who seemingly has found himself a great fit in Oil Country. For the most part, I believe Makar & Toews should be able to hold their own against McDavid. They won’t shut him down completely, but they should be able to prevent McDavid from scoring at the ludicrous 1.45 PPG pace that he is currently on.
My biggest concern/question with this matchup is how aggressive the Avalanche blue-liners will be in the offensive zone. I said earlier that offensive zone time is the best way to limit McDavid’s scoring, so I would like to see Makar & company pinch to keep pucks trapped in the Edmonton zone. This is a double-edged sword, however, as the slightest miscues could result in McDavid carrying the puck up the ice with speed and space – a goaltender’s worst nightmare. This is a general hockey rule that we’re taught at the peewee level, but in this series especially, if you’re going to come down from the blue line, you need to commit and show no hesitation because once that puck gets turned over to McDavid and he gets those legs churning, you aren’t going to catch him.
The bottom line is that the Avalanche should win this series. The deeper you get into the playoffs, the more important depth and goaltending become. Despite McDavid & Draisaitl imposing their will into the Western Conference Final, I believe this is where they will run into a speed bump. I’m having a hard time seeing Edmonton outplaying a Colorado team with this much speed, skill, and depth. The Oilers can make you pay for your mistakes, however, and the Avalanche have looked far from flawless. Colorado will need to enter this series prepared and will need to show a sense of urgency from Game 1 on. Assuming they do those things, they should find themselves playing for the Stanley Cup once again after 21 years. I’m going put my trust in Bednar and believe that he will have this group prepared both mentally and strategically. When betting hockey, or any sport for that matter, it behooves oneself to avoid backing a team that will need unforced errors from their opponent in order to win the series. Take Colorado at -240.