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Defensive chops guide Stanley Cup choices

By Lou Finocchiaro  () 

In making Stanley Cup series releases, I’ll side with teams that adhere to a disciplined defensive brand of hockey. I’ll base decisions on season statistics, play-in and round-robin data and — at least as important — the intangibles evident in any game or series.

Fundamentally sound hockey from the goal out is the formula for hoisting the Stanley Cup. Now we need to determine which clubs among these final 16 are most likely to hoist the Cup.

Western Conference

Usually the Wild Wild West, this year’s Western Conference seems more predictable than in years past. I handicap three legitimate teams that may earn their way to the Cup Final, so the West may not be quite that wild.

Vegas Golden Knights: + 180 conference, + 450 Stanley Cup

The Knights are the chalk in the conference, as well they should be. Based on the added stability in net with Robin Lehner, the Knights now complement their solid defense with elite goaltending. Lehner is backed up by Marc-Andre Fleury, and they combine for a 2.94 GAA.

The Vegas defense is experienced and deep, while the leadership down the middle of the lineup provides four effective lines on the forecheck. Coach Peter DeBoer must be mentioned as another asset who was brought in midseason to refresh a squad that was a bit stale and adrift. Since his addition, the Knights’ depth of talent and style of play make me regard them as true contenders in the conference.

Any value on the Knights is long gone, as sharp bettors and the locals in Las Vegas have gobbled them up in the futures market, so I’ll pass on any move on the Knights. But should the Blackhawks upset the Knights in Game 1, I might review the series lines. A move on the Knights down 0-1 in the series will offer a much better price than the current -350.

Seven-game series are unique in that betting value may be obtained at all times. Books post series prices game by game, accommodating the player looking to think on a more contrarian level.

 

Colorado Avalanche: + 225 conference, + 600 Stanley Cup

By the numbers, it’s all the Avs. But numbers do not win playoff contests.

The Avalanche boast a fine goaltending tandem, with a team GAA of 2.71 in the regular season and 1.67 in the round robin. Their defense may be the weakest of the platoons they put on the ice, but they block shots exceptionally, allowing a paltry 28.3 shots per game in the three-game round robin.

Colorado’s real assets, however, are its team speed and offensive precision and skill. The biggest hurdle the Avs must overcome is that they play a precision game utilizing speed and intricate passing. That relies on exact timing gained only through repetition in game situations, something being away from the ice for four months affects greatly. The Avs also are a touch undersized, and while they pressure opponents with their speed, they also have a history of being injured and dinged up. The Avs do not play a heavy style of physical hockey.

Can Colorado’s multiple injuries in the regular season be a prelude to issues in the most physically demanding tournament in sports? I think they may well be, and for that reason as well the poor return, I’ll let the Avalanche go in favor of last year’s conference and Stanley Cup champions. 

St. Louis Blues: + 600 conference, + 1200 Stanley Cup

The Blues have a great chance to repeat. They feature a young goaltender with a chip on his shoulder and an elite set of large, physically gifted defensemen who insulate him from threats. Their offensive continuity is lacking, and they’ve not yet gotten any groove, though they’ve played only three games in five months.

In Jordan Binnington, the Blues can match netminding with any team in the league (2.68 GAA). They’ve also proven to be airtight defensively, limiting shots on net to 29.6 per game. Struggling to find consistency on offense does not concern me in the slightest because this early in the quest for the Cup, it's clear that defense will have the upper hand.

To expect teams that play a finesse, precision offense to have all their mojo working after three games seems preposterous. So I worry little about St. Louis struggling to score since it has that defense and netminder. The Blues will eventually find their scoring the deeper they run into this tournament.

 

Eastern Conference

The East took the “wild” from the Western Conference this year. I could envision as many as six teams from the Eastern Conference making a run to the Stanley Cup, but I would really consider wagering on only three. Two of those three have enough questions that I’ll pass because they are large favorites offering little to no value.

 

Carolina Hurricanes: + 850 conference, + 1600 Stanley Cup

 

The Canes made a deep run in last year’s playoffs but were systematically taken apart by the Boston Bruins in the conference final. Carolina has been waiting since that series ended to get a second chance to compete against the bunch that dominated it so thoroughly. Now that chance is here. While you won’t find hatred, motivation or revenge in any statistics, believe me when I say they are handicapping tools when it comes to the passion of playoff hockey.

A year ago, Carolina, then a young, inexperienced team, learned how to play real playoff hockey in that embarrassing sweep by the Bruins. Everyone in the organization, starting with coach Rod Brind’Amour, has been waiting to return to the playoffs to make amends. The fact that the Hurricanes will face the Bruins in the first round seems only fitting.

The Canes return almost all of their playoff team from last year. Gone is netminder Curtis McElhinney, and between the pipes are Peter Mrazek and James Reimer. With a team GAA of 2.84 in the regular season and a minuscule 1.33 against the offensively capable New York Rangers in the play-in round, the Canes enter this battle with the bully Bruins focused and ready.

Late in February, the Canes believed top defenseman Dougie Hamilton was lost for the season. They reacted by making three aggressive acquisitions, including two defensemen to help fill the hole left by Hamilton. As it turned out, Hamilton is on the brink of returning at 100%, so his leadership and talent will add to an already deep and gifted defensive corps protecting a tandem of experienced yet underrated goalies. The Hurricanes feature as many as nine top-end defensemen competing for six roles, so depth and talent are abundant at a most critical playoff position.

 

 

Series releases

One important note about series wagers is that I often invest and reinvest during the series. I may take some teams from the play-in round in early games of their series against round-robin teams because the legs of the play-in skaters will be far better prepared for the frantic intensity required in the playoffs. But later in the same series, I might fade that team if I think it might be fatigued. Here’s an example.

Should Chicago beat Vegas in Game 1, the series price for Vegas, which is now -350 for the series, will drop aggressively. Even though the Knights may be down one game in the series, they’ll be available in that scenario well less than -350. It’s a profitable tactic, and if you watch me through this tournament, I’ll display exactly how to maneuver and maximize profitability by utilizing all the opportunities a seven-game series presents.

Other series choices:

Dallas Stars -112 vs. Calgary Flames-108. I don’t view Calgary as anywhere near the type of playoff team Dallas is. Remember, from the goal out!

Philadelphia Flyers -215 vs. Montreal Canadiens + 190. The Flyers are a great story, and they have everything it takes to surprise the entire conference. But they have not competed in real Stanley Cup hockey for years. It will be tough for those young kids to topple Carey Price and a most solid Montreal defense led by Shea Weber.

 

 

Game 1 releases

Washington Capitals -128 vs. New York Islanders + 118

The Isles will have their legs under them, and they play the form of hockey needed to win in the postseason. While I believe this will be a competitive series, I also think the difference between the Capitals and the Panthers is gargantuan. I think the Caps will roll in Game 1 and feel their talent alone should make them -140. Capitals -128

Philadelphia Flyers -155 vs. Montreal Canadiens + 140

The Canadiens will deliver a PhD in playoff pucks to the Flyers. Canadiens + 140 Wait for better price

 

Game-by-game releases will be posted on GambLou.com daily.

 

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