First impressions as hockey returns

It’s great to have hockey back, but bettors must temper their expectations and trust their preseason projections. Therefore, this is a great time to share my thoughts on what we’ve seen thus far in each of the four divisions.

East Division

After a pair of wins in their back-to-back set against rival Pittsburgh late last week, the Philadelphia Flyers were generating buzz. However, that was before they started this week by getting blown out by the Buffalo Sabres. Of course, the Flyers were without their best player, Sean Couturier, but this team is supposed to be deep, right? Carter Hart was outplayed by Carter Hutton, and the Sabres generated 2.5 expected goals to the 1.5 the Flyers accumulated. Couturier is expected to miss about two weeks, which means the Flyers have a good opportunity to prove me wrong.

Speaking of the Sabres, the Washington Capitals handed them a couple of losses to start the season, but Buffalo put forth an admirable effort in the second game and probably deserved to win. Despite that and their win over the Flyers, bettors should approach with caution. The Sabres are improved, but the goaltending is still a huge question mark. The Sabres need to string together more than a few strong performances before I will buy in and adjust my power rating.

Tristan Jarry has had a rough start. According to Evolving Hockey, the Penguins goaltender has allowed about five goals more than an average goaltender would have so far. I suggest cutting Jarry some slack, though. It has to be tough being thrust into the regular season with no preseason and a condensed training camp. Of course, the leash isn’t long, and Jarry will have to figure it out soon, but he’s never been this bad. Pittsburgh is off to a shaky start, but this team is too skilled to struggle for long. Even average goaltending should be good enough to get by.

Boston looked strong without David Pastrnak and Craig Smith in its first game against the Devils but seemed a bit lost in the second. Smith did play in that tilt. Ondrej Kase is a play driver who could be important for the Bruins this season, but staying healthy has never been his strong suit and he has already suffered an injury. Scoring consistently could be a problem for the Bruins until their lineup is at full strength.

Mackenzie Blackwood was strong in goal for the Devils, and he was the reason both games against the Bruins went to extra time. Several young players put forth some really impressive performances, but the Devils are still without forwards Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. This team projects to have a tough time scoring, even with those forwards in the lineup.

The debut of Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin didn’t go as scheduled. He was thrust into his first professional game in North America on Saturday when starter Semyon Varlamov was hit by a puck during warmups. The Rangers walloped the Islanders that night to split the first two games. Sorokin’s Russian counterpart, Igor Shesterkin, did not have a good night in the Rangers’ loss. 

North Division

Although they failed to open their season with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens were dominant in the 5-4 overtime loss, at one point leading 3-1. They looked even better in back-to-back wins over the Edmonton Oilers. Early signs suggest the Canadiens are picking up right where they left off. Obviously, they’ll have to put away the Maple Leafs eventually if they want to be atop the division, but the Canadiens look to be up to the challenge. Carey Price looked really good in both starts, and Jake Allen was solid in the crease Monday. Josh Anderson is everything Montreal fans had hoped he would be when he was acquired.

Ottawa showed some fight in its back-to-back set against the Maple Leafs, owning 51% of the expected goals at five-on-five, and it was good enough for a split. But the Senators still project to be one of the worst teams on defense. However, if the price is big enough and an opportunity presents itself, at least bettors can rest assured that this team will show some heart. The Maple Leafs learned that the hard way.

Toronto is loaded with skill but has a bit of a different look with players like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds in the lineup, and I’m not sure it’s a good one. The Leafs will likely find a way to pull it together, the way they did Monday versus the Winnipeg Jets. However, goalie Frederik Andersen must find his game quickly. Goaltending is not a problem for the Jets, but this is probably the same old Jets team. They were without Patrik Laine against the Maple Leafs and were crushed. Expected goals were 5-1.8 in favor of Toronto.

Connor McDavid went absolutely nuts after the Edmonton Oilers lost their opener to the Vancouver Canucks at home. He scored a hat trick in the next meeting in a dominant win. The Oilers were quickly brought back down to earth by the Canadiens, though. Edmonton and Vancouver sit at 1-3-0 after the Canucks dropped back-to-back games to the Calgary Flames, who will have to take on some tougher teams before I get excited about them.

West Division

Colorado was asleep at the wheel in its season opener versus the St. Louis Blues, and surprisingly, people thought it was meaningful. The Avalanche came right back in the next game and defeated the Blues 8-0. It was ugly. The Blues struggled to put away the San Jose Sharks in their first home game Monday, but they eventually got the job done. The Sharks’ goaltending situation is as bad as many expected. 

The Minnesota Wild were led to a pair of overtime wins over the Los Angeles Kings by rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov, who has already shown why he is a favorite to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. I thought the Wild were overpriced in both contests so far, but not so much that I could justify backing the Kings, who were without goaltender Cal Petersen and had to rely on Jonathan Quick.

Anaheim almost stole a win from the Vegas Golden Knights after being blown out in Sin City two nights earlier. The Ducks lost in overtime Saturday, but John Gibson followed that performance by shutting out the Wild on Monday. Nothing has changed here. Gibson is an elite goaltender, but the Ducks will have trouble scoring. Still, they’re probably the best of the three California teams.

The Golden Knights had to come from behind Monday night after falling behind 2-0 to the Arizona Coyotes, scoring four unanswered goals to win 4-2. A 40-minute effort is not enough for any team. The Golden Knights are going to be hard to hold down. If a team is lucky enough to get up by a couple of goals early, it had better be disciplined the rest of the way while still trying to generate offense. It’s going to be really fun to watch the Knights match up against Colorado and St. Louis. 

Central Division

So far, we’ve only seen Tampa Bay beat up on the Chicago Blackhawks twice, but the Lightning look to be every bit the dominant team we’ve come to know over the last few seasons. Yes, the LIghtning are without Nikita Kucherov, but we’re probably going to forget about him soon. This team is primed for another run at the Presidents’ Trophy with or without its top star.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Detroit Red Wings have looked competent, which was expected given that they replaced some very bad players with some useful ones. The Red Wings were able to split their opening games with the Carolina Hurricanes, but they did quite a bit of turtling. Thomas Greiss is a good goaltender, and don’t sleep on Jonathan Bernier either. This isn’t a good team, but it doesn’t look to be the historically bad one we saw last year.

That distinction might go to the Blackhawks. We knew Chicago would have trouble defensively. Corey Crawford’s play in goal was the only thing that saved the team last season. However, I’m more interested in seeing how this team is going to create offense without Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach anchoring the top lines. From a betting perspective, how this might impact game totals is of great importance to me. Games featuring the Blackhawks will typically have totals of 6.5 or higher.

We’ve yet to see the Dallas Stars take the ice, but their schedule has been revised and they will play Friday versus the Nashville Predators, who opened the season with back-to-back wins over the Blue Jackets. Juuse Saros looked good. Pekka Rinne will reduce the Preds’ chances of winning whenever he gets the nod outside of some situations when resting the starter makes sense.

As predicted, the Carolina Hurricanes look to be in a good spot in this division. According to Evolving Hockey’s expected-goals model, the Hurricanes have been the best team through three games. Of course, playing the Red Wings twice has a lot to do with that. The Florida Panthers are still the wild card, it seems. They have a new look up front with Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Patric Hornqvist, but we’ll still have to see them take on some stiffer competition before we know if this team has improved.

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