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1. Pittsburgh Penguins -141 (37-16-3 / 77pts)
4. New York Islanders +118 (32-17-7 / 71pts)
It would appear that Pens fans are not very willing to learn from history. They are seemingly content to repeat past mistakes. Just go online and you will see all the Penguins faithful worrying more about who they will play in Round 2, rather than worrying about the series in front of them. They did this last year, and the year before that as well. The outcome? Last year the Pens were bounced in the qualifying round by the Canadiens, the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference. The year before that was even worse. The fan base was quickly silenced when the Islanders team that they had written off quickly silenced them, sweeping the Penguins in 4 games. That was the same Islanders team that they are dismissing now, before a game has even been played. They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Is that happening here? It is possible. The Islanders defense and goaltending is just as staunch as it was then. The Islanders team that swept the Pens won the Jennings Trophy, which is awarded to the goalie or goalie tandem that had the fewest goals scored against them. This year’s Islanders team came up 1 goal shy of tying Vegas for that honor. The defense that the Penguins had been playing down the stretch looked to be as good or better than the Isles defense. That play seemingly disappeared. In 3 of the Pens final 4 games, they gave up 14 combined goals in those 3 games against non-playoff teams. Coincidently, the defense evaporated in Evgeni Malkin’s first game back. So which Pens team should we expect in this series? My money is on the former. Pittsburgh is finally healthy – they had their first practice with full attendance days after the regular season ended. These days off will give them time in the film room to dissect their play and make adjustments to get back to that elite level of defense they had been playing. Most importantly, the Penguins have performed very well against the Isles this year, taking the season series 6-2. Barry Trotz is one of the great coaches in the NHL, he will obviously be looking to make adjustments for the task he faces. However, with the Pens offense clicking (they finished with the 2nd most goals in the league), it will be hard for the Isles to keep up. They are the 2nd lowest scoring team in the playoffs this year. The difficulty of that task is raised with the absence of team captain Anders Lee. I believe the Penguins are the smart play in this series, but it would be foolish to focus on Round 2 until Pittsburgh wins that 4th game, as the Islanders defense and goaltending are completely capable of stealing a series against a superior team.
PICK: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (-141 ON DRAFTKINGS)
2. Washington Capitals +130 (36-15-5 / 77pts)
3. Boston Bruins -148 (33-16-7 / 73pts)
How can you not be excited for this series? It has a little bit of everything. Two teams that consider themselves Cup contenders? Check. Two teams capable of playing hockey at elite levels, both offensively and defensively? Check. Underlying drama from the regular season? Check. This looks more like a conference championship series than a first round matchup. What more could you possibly want? Let us start with the drama. Earlier in the regular season, Tom Wilson earned himself a 7-game suspension for a hit on Bruins D Brandon Carlo which resulted in Carlo leaving the game by ambulance to go to the hospital. Carlo missed nearly a month of action. Things got heated between Wilson and Bruins F Trent Frederic when these teams closed out their regular seasons against each other, but the refs diffused the situation and slapped both players with 10-minute misconducts before things could escalate. There is no doubt that a lot of eyes will be on Wilson in this series, especially after the melee he caused recently against the New York Rangers which resulted in Artemi Panarin being injured and missing the final 3 games. Many felt that Wilson should have been suspended until next season for the incident. However, while we are watching and waiting for Tom Wilson to cross the line once again, there will also be a hockey game going on. The Caps finished the season tied for 4th in scoring with 3.36 goals per game. The Bruins defense mirrors that perfectly, as they are tied for 4th in goals against per game at 2.39. Both teams have been playing well since the trade deadline, with Boston going 12-5 and the depleted Caps going 9-5 since that time. These teams split their season series 4-4 this year, but from 2015-2020 the Capitals went 17-2 against the B’s. For this reason, I am going to back Washington to take this series, as long as they do not have any major holes in their lineup come Saturday. If I am wrong, at least I will err on the side of history.
PICK: WASHINGTON CAPITALS (+130 ON DRAFTKINGS)
2. Florida Panthers +130 (37-14-5 / 79pts)
3. Tampa Bay Lightning -152 (36-17-3 / 75pts)
For the first time ever, we will get to see “The Governor’s Cup” in the postseason. The rivalry stretches back to 1993, when it was called “The Sunshine Cup”, but somehow these teams have not met past the regular season despite belonging to the same division for over 20 years. Florida is clearly coming into this series as the hotter team. They have won 6 straight, including 2 wins over Tampa Bay to close out the regular season with a combined score of 9-1. Tampa on the other hand are losers of 3 straight. However, the Lightning will be getting a considerable boost to their lineup as both Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are expected to play in Game 1. This will be the first game of the season for both Tampa forwards. Both teams have high-scoring stars up front, which could make for a high-scoring series despite both teams having solid net-minders. The Panthers seemingly have solved Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Panthers score an average of 2.88 goals per game on Vasilevskiy, his 4th worst average against opponents he has faced at least 10 times. As I am writing this article, the Panthers have not named their starting goalie. It does not seem that they could go wrong, as both Bobrovsky and Driedger both have winning records against Tampa this year. However, the Lightning offense should receive a jolt with the return of two of their star forwards. Pun intended. This makes me think the Lightning are the smart play. They have the depth advantage. They also have the experience, having just won the Cup in September. I think the Panthers will really feel the loss of D Aaron Ekblad in this series, who was in the midst of the best season of his career when he got injured in March. This should give the Lightning a clear edge on the blue line as well, with Norris Trophy front-runner Victor Hedman having yet another stellar season.
PICK: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (-152 ON DRAFTKINGS)
1. Colorado Avalanche -380 (39-13-4 / 82pts)
4. St. Louis Blues +300 (27-20-9 / 63pts)
Pick any random Avalanche game this year, go back and re-watch it, and there is a good chance you will see a textbook example of how to dominate a hockey game. The President’s Trophy winning Avs dominated their opponents this year in time of possession and shot differential. They finished the regular season with a Corsi % of a staggering 59.1%. This was 4.7% higher than the 2nd place team. They also led the league in expected goals against at 34.7. The next lowest total was 40.2. Not only did they lead these categories, but they did so by a large margin. Colorado is so dominant at every position that you can find them at or near the top of practically every major stat category. Perhaps the most impressive part of all this is the fact that the Avalanche did all of this while suffering the 5th most man-games lost in the entire NHL. Their opponent will be the resurgent St. Louis Blues, who have suffered the 2nd most man-games lost to injury. The Blues got a couple key pieces back from injury recently, and the difference is noticeable. After a stretch where they had a record of 12-22, the Blues closed out their season by going 8-4. Out of those 8 wins, 6 came against Colorado & Minnesota. It may be too little, too late, however, as they are about to run into a buzz saw. The Blues can certainly make this series closer than expected, but with no perceivable weakness, the Avs will prove to be too much to handle.
PICK: COLORADO AVALANCHE (-380 ON FANDUEL)
2. Vegas Golden Knights -230 (40-14-2 / 82pts)
3. Minnesota Wild +190 (35-16-5 / 75pts)
I expect this series to showcase exceptional offense or superb defense on a game-by-game basis. Both teams have demonstrated the ability to put up goals at will and to shut down the opposition throughout this season. I am hoping we will get to see both in this best of 7 set. Vegas comes into this series as a hefty favorite, but Minnesota has had their number this year, with the Wild taking the season series 5-3. Vegas comes into this series as the hotter team, finishing the regular season 15-3 in their final 18 games. Injuries may negatively impact their plans to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, however. The status of the following Vegas players remains unseen in terms of whether or not they will suit up in Game 1 on Sunday: Max Pacioretty, Alex Tuch, Ryan Reaves, Thomas Nosek, Alec Martinez. As you can see, if those players do not play, it takes a lot of goals, blocked shots, and physicality out of their lineup. There are indications that Reaves and Martinez will play Sunday, but the disclosure of injuries and player status in the NHL is mysterious by nature. I believe Vegas is the superior team in this series, but with a favorable line for the Wild, and the fact that members of Vegas’ top two lines will be playing banged up, if they play at all, it may be wise to take the Wild +1.5 game line if you are resolved on betting this series.
PICK: MINNESOTA WILD +1.5 (-109 on DRAFTKINGS)