Like the regular season, handicapping the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a grind. But the first round is a lot of fun to bet on, and pricing each series is one of my favorite things to do as a bettor. There’s a lot of randomness in hockey, and a best-of-seven series isn’t a big enough sample size to quiet all the noise, but each season I try to predict the winner of all 15 matchups with the hopes of beating the bookmakers and making some money. All recommended bets are tracked as one unit (bet to win one unit on favorite and risk one unit on underdog) unless stated otherwise. If you want, you can use the model projection to bet in proportion to its perceived edge. Let’s look at each series from a betting perspective.
All stats via Evolving Hockey. Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.
The Eastern Conference is objectively the toughest of the two, and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the eight teams went on to win the Stanley Cup. Obviously, some teams have better chances than others, but there aren’t any pretenders in this group of eight.
Boston Bruins (-105) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (-115)
Without knowing when Frederik Andersen will return from his injury, it’s hard to judge whether he’s going to play in this series or not. He’s only just beginning to do on-ice workouts, according to reports, and it looks like the Hurricanes are going to have to start the series with Pytor Kochetkov or Antti Raanta as their starting goaltender. If that’s the case, it’s a huge break for the Bruins, as Andersen was lights out in three games against Boston this season, posting a .990 save percentage and going 3-0. I’m going to assume that Andersen doesn’t suit up in this series and deal with the consequences of that decision later. Andersen returning would obviously improve the Hurricanes’ chances, but the Bruins have been a better team at even strength over the last two months, and they at least have one hot goaltender (Linus Ullmark).
Boston has been scoring even-strength goals at a much higher rate than Carolina, and they’ve been just as good as the Hurricanes on defense, if not better, and that’s why I’m betting on the Bruins to win the series at -105. My model likes the Bruins a lot more than the Hurricanes (minus Andersen) because Boston’s offensive game has found new hope with players like Erik Haula, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle chipping in a lot of offense on top of what Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak produce. Carolina is a talented team, but this will be the third time in four seasons their quest to the Stanley Cup runs through Boston and they haven’t made it past them yet. Don’t get me wrong, Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen are great players, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hurricanes won, but it looks like the Bruins can match whatever is thrown at them, and then some. The addition of Hampus Lindholm on defense is big, too. I recommend betting on Boston to win the series as my model suggests they have a 55.9 percent chance (-127) of winning the series. Hopefully the Bruins can win in Carolina and head back to Boston with home-ice advantage.
Boston Bruins Series -105
Tampa Bay Lightning (%plussign 100) at Toronto Maple Leafs (-120)
It’s hard to say which team comes in with more pressure on them, which is silly when you think about it. One team is looking to win their third Stanley Cup in a row and cement themselves as the greatest team of this generation, while the other hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004. It should be a good one, too. Say what you want about the Maple Leafs, but they are loaded with talent. Someday we might be talking about Auston Matthews catching Alex Ovechkin for the all-time scoring record, and he’s on fire heading into the playoffs. He’s only the 21st player in NHL history to score 60 goals in a season, and his partner, Mitch Marner, has been playing the best hockey of his career. William Nylander is also at the top of his game. John Tavares, Michael Bunting and Alex Kerfoot, the list goes on. This is a deep team, and their blueline is full of big talented defenders like Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. This is a solid team that might just be able to end the losing streak in the playoffs, but as mentioned, standing in their way is arguably the greatest team since Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.
But even more so than the Lightning, the Maple Leafs’ goaltending is the biggest reason why Tampa Bay is the favorite. Andrei Vasilevskiy has looked worn down, as have the Lightning, but just like his teammates, he’s capable of raising his game in the playoffs. If Toronto had a better goaltender, I think the series would be closer to a coin flip, but as things stand now, the Lightning have a 54.9 percent chance (-122) of eliminating the Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov are going to do whatever it takes to win this series and move on, but it really does look like it’s going to be a close one. The Maple Leafs might outplay the Lightning, as they grade out as one of the best teams in categories like shot attempt percentage but outscoring them is going to be a challenge if Vasilevskiy is on his game. Bet on the Lightning to win the series at + 100 and continue their quest for a three-peat, but if don’t be shocked if the Maple Leafs quiet a lot of people with a series victory, as oddsmakers have listed them as the favorite.
Tampa Bay Lightning Series + 100