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
Pittsburgh Penguins (-110) vs. New York Rangers (-110)
New York won the season series 3-1, but they were fortunate because there was only one meeting between the two teams where both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were in the Penguins’ lineup for two games against the Rangers. Tristan Jarry isn’t going to be in goal for the Penguins this time around, though, and their chances of winning a given game against the Rangers aren’t as good with Casey DeSmith in goal. DeSmith has had a long road back from injury after slipping down the depth chart, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was higher than Jarry on the Penguins’ depth chart, and maybe he can provide them with solid goaltending. The Penguins only won about half of their games since March 1st, but I believe they’re better than that. They rank just outside the top-10 in expected goals (for and against) and while they might not be as deep as some of the other teams, they’ve got a lot of talent at the top of the lineup.
Still, the Penguins are one team that the Rangers have played well against, and New York has improved overall throughout the season, even if they did have a soft schedule over the last few months. The Rangers shot attempt differential was negative through the first half of the season, but they’ve turned things around and are positive since the beginning of February. The Rangers have a lot of talented players, but Igor Shesterkin is going to have to be the difference in this series. There’s been a lot of talk about the Rangers having to prove that they are more than a team that relies on great goaltending, but you can’t change the identify of a team overnight. There are many pundits who think this will be a quick and easy win for the Rangers, because the Penguins haven’t looked up to the task, but my model estimates that New York’s chances of winning are 50.2 percent. Igor Shesterkin gives the Rangers a big edge in goal, and thanks to their improved play, the gap between them and the Penguins has been closed quite a bit.
Washington Capitals (+ 250) vs. Florida Panthers (-320)
If the Capitals were listed closer to 3/1, I would’ve been happy to bet them, but at + 250, wasting money betting against the best team in hockey doesn’t sound as appealing. My model prices the Capitals at + 240, but a one percent edge isn’t big enough to justify a wager on the underdog. Washington is an intriguing team, though. The core is old, and whether their top players can stay healthy or not is always a concern, but they might just be able to hang with the Panthers on offense. Florida grades out as the best team on offense, scoring over four goals per 60 minutes, but Washington ranks seventh in that category minutes (3.55 GF60) since March 1st and there are major concerns about the Panthers’ goaltending heading into the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky’s save percentage is .898 since Feb. 1st, and he hasn’t been giving the Panthers much of a boost, according to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model.
Washington’s biggest weakness is in goal, too, but Vitek Vanecek isn’t incapable of playing well. If Bobrovsky isn’t on his game, and Spencer Knight isn’t able to come in and save the day, this series could end up being a lot closer than anyone thinks. My model estimates that the Panthers have a 70.5 percent chance of winning the series thanks to the fact that they have four 30-goal scorers and two 25-goal scorers in their lineup, and a couple of other players who probably should have hit 20 in the regular season. Aaron Ekblad is also expected to return to the lineup in the playoffs, and it’s possible that I have underestimated the impact that he could make in this series. Ekblad was one of the best defenders in the league when he suffered the injury, and the Panthers hardly missed a beat. The Panther are scary, but I refuse to count the Capitals out of this series. They aren’t your typical wild card team.
There was a lot more excitement in the Western Conference playoff race, with the Vegas Golden Knights making things interesting, and it’s easy to see based on some of the series prices that the top teams (Colorado and Calgary) have a much better chance of going to the next round than their Eastern Conference counterparts.
St. Louis Blues (+ 130) vs. Minnesota Wild (-150)
Minnesota grades out as a top-10 team by expected goals, but the Blues still manage to earn a similar share of the goals in all situations. St. Louis doesn’t jump out as a contender thanks to their 48.3 percent shot share, but like the Wild, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league heading into the playoffs and they are well suited to play the pond hockey style that we’ve seen in three games between the two clubs this season. St. Louis won all three meetings, starting with a 6-4 win on New Year’s Day at Target Field, and they won the other two games (both in April) in overtime. I’m not punishing the Wild too harshly for their record in the season series, as they did not have a single home game, and they weren’t always healthy, but I am not going to dismiss it, either.
It’s unclear who will start in goal for either team, but my prediction won’t change much regardless, as all four goaltenders have been underwhelming me with their play over the past few months. Ville Husso has had the best season out of any of the goaltenders that could play in this series, but goaltending, and what leads some having success and other not being so lucky, is a bit of a mystery. Jordan Binnington’s a wild card, and even if we forget about his time spent in Chicago, Marc-Andre Fleury’s play has been underwhelming at best. Cam Talbot has been the worst of the bunch according to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model, but goaltenders are voodoo, so I won’t talk trash about him. All in all, I don’t have a lot of confidence in any of the goaltenders in this series. According to my model, the Wild will win the series about 51 percent (-104) of the time. Clearly, oddsmakers (and some bettors) feel much differently about this series, as the Blues are priced as high as + 140 at some shops and seeing people that I respect suggest that the Wild should be a clear favorite does make me worry that I’m missing something, I trusted my process and bet on the underdog to win the series at + 130.
St. Louis Blues Series + 130
Los Angeles Kings (+ 200) vs. Edmonton Oilers (-250)
A couple of months ago I would have thought I’d be one of the first to bet on the Los Angeles Kings to eliminate the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs. However, once it was announced that Drew Doughty was going to miss the rest of the season, and the Oilers started to peak, the chances of that happening began to fade. Edmonton always would’ve been the favorite, but my model has come around on the team, at least as it relates to this matchup. They’re the fourth best offensive team over the last two months, and while their schedule has been light, the Kings are going to have a tough time keeping pace. The Oilers are a good enough team to hang with the Kings in terms of fighting for their share of the puck, and unless Los Angeles can dictate the pace of play and tilt the shot share in their direction by a large margin, the Oilers are almost certainly going to outscore them. The Kings’ gameplan can’t be to go shot for shot with the Oilers, because if they play the percentages they’ll lose. Los Angeles has the worst offense of any of the 16 playoff teams. They’re one of only two playoff teams that have failed to score at least three goals per 60 minutes in all situations, and while they are among the top-10 in shot attempt percentage and expected goals, they are a breakeven team with a plus-three goal differential on the season.
Confidence shouldn’t be high in Mike Smith, but it is encouraging to see him head into the playoffs on a hot streak. Jonathan Quick has been good all season long, though, and while I’m not ready to say he’s back, he has saved the team approximately 12 goals above expected this season. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner, so he’s not going to be rattled by the stage, or the star power. The Kings have some good offensive players. Adrian Kempe scored 35 goals, and Phillip Danault potted 27. Viktor Arvidsson would’ve score close to 25-30 goals if not for the fact that he missed 16 games. The Kings could defeat the Oilers in a game, but even if their veterans play their best hockey, and two or three young players rise to the occasion, it will still be tough to do four times without a lot of luck. This is a series where I wouldn’t be shocked to see the underdog play well and lose every game 4-1, but don’t take that as a prediction. I’m just trying to explain the kind of hockey we might see. Los Angeles is a well-structured team, and coaching could play a big role in this series. Todd McLellan knows Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and some of the other Oilers well from his time in Edmonton and maybe he has a plan to try and get their best players off their game. That’s easier said than done, though, and Edmonton looks poised to move past the Kings and onto the next round. According to my model, the Oilers will win the series almost 72 percent of the time, which means they should be priced around -255.
Nashville Predators (+ 450) vs. Colorado Avalanche (-600)
David Rittich and the Nashville Predators picked up a come-from-behind win over the Colorado Avalanche in the final days of the regular season, but obviously oddsmakers have not put any stock into that. The Avalanche are huge favorites, and rightfully so. The injury to Juuse Saros is a big blow Nashville’s chance of winning this series. The Predators still would have been bid underdogs no matter what, but now that it looks like Rittich will be the starting goaltender in round one, it’s hard to see them winning a game or two at the most. Nashville has been a mediocre team for the past few seasons, and Saros will likely be in consideration for the Vezina Trophy at the end of the year. Saros posted a .918 save percentage this season and saved the team approximately 13 goals above expected. Rittich, on the other hand, has a .886 save percentage on the season, and has cost the team about seven goals above expected. They do have two 40-goal scorers in Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg, which is something the Avalanche don’t have, but Colorado is a much deeper team. The Avalanche and Predators have been scoring goals at about the same rate over the past couple of months, but Colorado didn’t have two of their top three scorers (Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen) for a long stretch, and Nazem Kadri and other important players also missed time. According to my model, the Avalanche will win the series almost 90 percent of the time, which doesn’t seem real, but here we are. I could recommend a bet on the Avalanche to win the series straight up, or cover the series spread (-1.5) at -260, since my model suggests it should be priced around -325, but I’m going to look for other ways to capitalize on this mismatch of a series.
Dallas Stars (+ 235) vs. Calgary Flames (-320)
For those of us holding Calgary Flames’ futures, it was bummer to see the Nashville Predators blow a 4-0 lead to the Arizona Coyotes. If they had of held on, Calgary would’ve matched up with them and they would’ve had the best chance of moving onto round two. A matchup with the Dallas Stars is a decent consolation prize, though, and the Flames have a great chance of getting past them. The Flames won the season series 2-1, and most recently defeated the Stars 4-2 to clinch the Pacific Division crown. Aside from the Los Angeles Kings, the Stars are the only other playoff team that is coming in having scored less than three goals per 60 minutes during the regular season, and the Flames are one of the best offensive teams in the league, having scored 3.55 goals per 60 minutes during the 82-game campaign. They’re also a top-five team on defense, and starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who had a season worthy of a Vezina Trophy nomination, gives them a big edge in goal. Jake Oettinger (.913 save percentage) has been fine for the Stars this season, but he saved his team more than a goal above expected in 48 games played and that pales in comparison to Markstrom’s .921 save percentage and his 16.1 goals saved above expected.
According to my model, the Flames odds of winning the series should represent an 83.4 percent chance (-500). Calgary is priced short at -320, but that’s a big price and I’d rather lay -140 on the Flames to cover the series spread (-1.5) and win the series in six games or less. Calgary will win the series in six games or less approximately 68 percent of the time, which means the odds should be closer to -210. Calgary is the only other team in the Western Conference that should be spoken in the same breath as the Avalanche, and they should be priced around -500. Calgary was perfect on the road as heavy favorites (-175 or higher) this season and they’ll be big favorites even when they’re in Dallas. This shouldn’t be a long series, but strange things do happen, and if the Flames somehow lose, or fail to cover the series spread, I’ll be glad I didn’t lay -320. Calgary has been my favorite team to bet on all season long because they’re one of the few teams that you can count on to put in a consistent effort. They have a great motivator, head coach Daryl Sutter, behind the bench, and hopefully his teachings throughout the season lead to a long run in the playoffs, and maybe even a Stanley Cup championship.
Calgary Flames Series Spread (-1.5) -140
Boston Bruins Series Moneyline -105
Tampa Bay Lightning Series Moneyline + 100
St. Louis Blues Series Moneyline + 130
Calgary Flames Series Spread (-1.5) -140