Stanley Cup playoff betting preview: Best bets for every series

hurricanes

The 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs are here and it's time to break down every series from a betting perspective.

Here are my thoughts on each series, along with several best bets.

Note: Series odds via DraftKings Sportsbook.

Central Division

1. Carolina Hurricanes (-250) vs. 4. Nashville Predators (+ 196)

CAR-NASH

Heading into the season, I pegged the Hurricanes as a team that could wrestle the division title from the Lightning, and I feel pretty good about that assessment in hindsight. On the other hand, I projected the Predators to be on the fringe of the playoff picture. Though they did qualify, I believe they are still the mediocre team I projected they would be. Yes, the Predators won the final two games of the regular season against the Hurricanes by a combined score of 8-1, but one has to wonder how much the Predators’ last stand was fueled by desperation. Both teams rested a lot of starters in the final game. 

The Hurricanes had owned the season series up to that point, winning all six previous meetings in dominant fashion. The Predators’ newfound confidence gives me pause. Still, the Predators’ success has been driven largely by goaltender Juuse Saros. He has a .927 save percentage for the season and has been even better than that since the beginning of April. Can Saros steal the series? You bet. Can the Predators sustain their winning ways given their underlying metrics? I’m less convinced, especially because they’re facing a top-10 team on offense and defense.

According to Evolving Hockey, the Hurricanes grade as the third-best team by expected goals on offense and the 16th-best team on defense. The Hurricanes’ average defensive metrics would be concerning if not for the fact that they’ve allowed fewer goals per 60 minutes than all but two teams. Conversely, they score at a higher rate than most teams but sit just outside the top 10 in goals per 60 minutes in all situations. It could be just poor puck luck, or it could be a signal that the team lacks finishing ability. Either way, they’re better off than the Predators in those categories and have two very capable goaltenders in Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic. The latter has been the more consistent and reliable, and he’s a big reason the Hurricanes won the division despite Mrazek’s injury-plagued campaign.

Since the trade deadline, the Predators have scored about 57% of the goals despite being outshot and outchanced on an aggregate basis. Saros has been great, but we should consider the very real possibility that he, and the team, will regress. By expected goals, the Predators grade as an average team at 15th on defense and a well-below-average team on offense at 26th. The team finished 20th in goals and 12th in goals against per 60 minutes. If Saros isn’t great, the Predators will be in trouble. Carolina can beat this team in more ways than one.

2. Florida Panthers (+ 123) vs. 3. Tampa Bay Lightning (-152)

TB-FL

It became clear pretty early in the season that I had missed on the Panthers, as I had projected them to finish with 61 points and miss the playoffs about 57% of the time. In the end, they nearly won the division title. I underestimated the impact of players like Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe, as both finished among the top scorers on the team. However, both were injured near the end of the season and might not be at 100% heading into the playoffs. But the Panthers are a very good team nonetheless, and they have home-ice advantage in the opening series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Lightning probably have the biggest range of possibilities. On the one hand, they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions with a better roster, on paper, than last season. Nikita Kucherov, who missed the entire regular season, and Steven Stamkos, who missed a significant portion of it, will be ready for the opener. That would be huge for any team but especially one as talented as the Lightning. The Panthers have not seen that version of the Lightning this season. Nobody has. On the other hand, the Lightning really haven’t been good as of late, and injuries could be a concern.

Victor Hedman’s on-ice impact has been cut in half, and he has had one of his worst seasons defensively. As a result, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Hedman is nursing an injury and has been for quite some time. He sat out at the end of the regular season, presumably to rest for the playoffs, but it’s hard to see him contributing the way he has in the past given his recent play. Can he bounce back and put forth another effort worthy of Conn Smythe consideration? For sure. That’s one of the many reasons this price is very fluid. 

It’s hard for a team to hit the ground running, but the Lightning are capable of doing so effectively, assuming they are whole. It will be very important to observe the first game of the series closely and determine whether having the band back together will be enough to gain an edge over a Panthers team that has gotten the better of them this season. The Panthers are 5-3 straight up against the Lightning this year and have held a significant territorial advantage while also owning the majority of expected goals. What’s old is new again, though, and the Panthers now have to deal with the fact that two MVP-caliber players are returning to the lineup. Tampa Bay has the edge in goal with Andrei Vasilevskiy, but assuming the Panthers start Chris Driedger over Sergei Bobrovsky, that edge might not show up enough over a seven-game series with how random the sport is.

Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning -140 or better (BetMGM -140)

East Division

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins (-141) vs. 4. New York Islanders (+ 115)

NY-PIT

Both the Islanders and Penguins have had up-and-down seasons. For a while, the Islanders looked like they would finish atop the division while the Penguins were fighting for their playoff lives. However, the script flipped again and the Penguins surged as the Islanders struggled to keep pace with the rest of the teams in the division. According to Natural Stat Trick, neither team has been particularly good at five-on-five: The Islanders were the 20th-best team by their expected goals model since the trade deadline, while the Penguins were 16th. However, the Penguins have scored almost 60% of the five-on-five goals in those games while the Islanders’ goal share was closer to 50%.

The season series tells a similar story. The Islanders own a 2-6 record against the Penguins this season despite the fact that they haven’t been necessarily outplayed by the Penguins. Are they unlucky, or are the Penguins just loaded with so much more skill than the Islanders that they are more likely to win a given game? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of both, which is why this is the closest series of them all, by my estimation. 

The Penguins are fortunate to have taken so many points from the Islanders in the regular season, but we can’t dismiss the fact that the Islanders just simply don’t have as much high-end talent as the Penguins. Mathew Barzal is a fine player, and one that’s capable of changing a game on his own, but the Penguins have several players that are capable of making that type of an impact, most notably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Where the Islanders do have an edge is in goal. Tristan Jarry hasn’t been good this season, and is by far the worst goaltender of the four that could potentially see the ice in this series. Despite that, the Penguins are likely to start Jarry and his .909 save percentage. He’ll almost certainly be matched up against Semyon Varlamov, who has had one of the best seasons of his career. 

Varlamov is coming into the playoffs with a .929 save percentage in 36 games. That number is probably not a good reflection of his true talent, though, as he hasn’t come close to reaching that mark since he posted a .927 save percentage back in 2013-14 while with the Avalanche and hasn’t hit .920 since leaving Colorado.

2. Washington Capitals (+ 130) vs. 3. Boston Bruins (-162)

BOS-WAS

Are the Capitals 100 percent? I don’t think so. Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov have all missed time recently due to injury, and T.J. Oshie was soon to follow. Tom Wilson is another player that’s probably not fully healthy after an eventful couple of weeks in which he was banged up on numerous occasions. However, there’s no way to know for sure, and some of that uncertainty is reflected in my price. If the Capitals are anything less than whole, it will be evident in the series opener. It’s going to be imperative that bettors watch this game and make any observations that could help them throughout the series.

The Bruins don’t have any injury issues, currently, and they’ve been playing their best hockey of the season. This was always an elite hockey team, but for a while it seemed as if they had lost themselves along the way. It wasn’t until the team acquired Taylor Hall that they started to find their chemistry again. The Bruins have two very dangerous forward lines and a solid bottom-six group. On defense they leave a little bit to be desired, but they have at least one good goaltending option behind Tuukka Rask (Jeremy Swayman), which is something the Capitals just don’t have: Both Capitals’ goaltenders (Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek) have been well below-average this season.

Washington is dangerous up front, with the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Anthony Mantha, and they’re a hard team to play against, but the Bruins have managed -- even when they were slumping -- to hang with the Capitals. Now, Boston is playing some of its best hockey of the season, with the best expected goals for percentage since the trade deadline, according to Natural Stat Trick. Yes, the Bruins played Sabres six times and the Devils twice over that stretch, but the rest of the time they were up against tougher competition and fared well.

If the final game of the regular season is any indication of how tough this series is going to be for the Capitals, it’s not a good sign. The Bruins iced a lineup that was full of American Hockey League players and almost no regulars against a Capitals lineup that was only missing a couple of star players and they had a lot of trouble with the Baby Bruins. As I watched the Capitals struggle to squeak out a regular win against a team that they should be able to manhandle, I couldn’t help but think that the poor showing will have an impact on the series price.

Pick: Boston Bruins Series -165 or better (BetMGM -150)

North Division

(1) Toronto Maple Leafs (-315) vs. 4. Montreal Canadiens (+ 240)

MTL-TOR

The Maple Leafs haven’t held much of a territorial edge over the Canadiens, being outshot by the Canadiens six times this season. However, in each of the last four games Toronto did outshoot Montreal. What the Maple Leafs do, though, is make the best out their possessions: In seven out of 10 games, Toronto had the edge in expected goals, according to Evolving Hockey. The Maple Leafs have a matchup advantage, and they’ve been consistent.

The Canadiens, on the other hand, have been consistently bad, especially since losing forward Brendan Gallagher and having their season condensed after the league had to postpone some of their games. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens rank 22nd by expected goals at five-on-five, scoring only 34% of the five-on-five goals in that time. It looks like Gallagher will be back for the playoffs, which should bring the Canadiens above water, so to speak. However, after an early-season coaching change and a lot of roster turnover, this is a far cry from the team that graded out as one of the NHL’s best by expected goals just a season ago.

There’s also the fatigue issue, as Montreal is 9-14 since the beginning of April and it’s easy to see why; playing 24 games in 32 days can’t be easy. Goaltender Jake Allen (.907 save percentage) has to be feeling it at 34, as he’s played in 18 of those game,s and Carey Price is still recovering from an injury. It’s not an ideal situation, and the Leafs aren’t going to take it easy on them. Jack Campbell regressed a bit, as expected, but is still sporting a .923 save percentage and having a sturdy goaltender will allow the Leafs to play the type of game they need to play against the Canadiens. What time of game is that?

One where Toronto control the shots, chances and the goals, which is what it has been doing all season long, and particularly well in the last 15 games. Anything can happen in a seven-game series, but if anything, I’m actually concerned that I’m underestimating just how outmatched the Canadiens are here. Four months ago, I would have given the Canadiens better odds of competing against the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, but they’re going to have to reach a level of play that they haven’t reached in months if they’re going take down the Leafs.

2. Edmonton Oilers (-186) vs. 3. Winnipeg Jets (+ 150)

WPG-EDM

Connor McDavid is going to take home the Hart trophy as the MVP. The man scored 100 points in 53 games, and he is the first player to do that in his own lifetime … at age 24. It hasn’t been done since the 1995-96 season when teammates Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr managed to get 100 points in 53 games or fewer. Will McDavid be able to keep up his pace against the Jets? Probably. He’s tallied at least two points in each of the nine games against Winnipeg this season for a total of 22. 

According to Evolving Hockey, Jets goalie Connor Hellebyuck has played some of his worst hockey against the Oilers this season. The Oilers are 7-2 this season against the Jets and have had a positive expected goal differential in all but one game. Hellebyuck has faced the Oilers seven times and has given up approximately six more goals than an average goaltender would have given the quality of the shots that he’s faced. Were these just off-nights for a world-class goaltender, or do the Oilers’ top stars have his number? There’s a strong case to be made for the latter and Edmonton’s superiority is made even more evident by the fact that they’ve stayed fairly consistent all season long and are picking things up at the right time. 

By expected goals, the Oilers are a top-10 team in all situations. The Jets, meanwhile, are in the bottom 10, according to Natural Stat Trick. Winnipeg will get a boost when Nikolaj Ehlers returns to the lineup, as he is one of the Jets’ best players, but the Oilers deserve to be sizable favorites here. Edmonton goalie Mike Smith will probably be good for a mishap or two while trying to handle the puck behind his net, but there’s no denying that he’s been very good this year. He’s also really fun to watch. Theoretically, the Jets should have the edge in goal, despite their nasty head-to-head record against the Oilers, but sometimes that edge doesn’t show itself enough over a best-of-seven series. Hellebuyck might be able to steal a game or two, but don’t expect him to be bulletproof throughout. 

If the Jets are going to win the series, they’re going to have to help out their goaltender. They’re going to need more from Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has been a big disappointment since coming over via trade from Columbus. Bettors should remember Dubois’ strong performance in last year’s playoffs, so there is potential there but it seems less and less likely that he will return to those heights now. The Jets have a 43.5% goal share since the trade deadline with only a slightly larger share (46%) of the expected goals to go along with it. Winnipeg needs a turn around, and it needs it quickly.

West Division

1. Colorado Avalanche (-360) vs. 4. St. Louis Blues (+ 270)

STL-COL

This is the most lopsided matchup of them all, and that should come as no surprise. The Avalanche are one of the best teams of the last decade, and while the Blues aren’t that far removed from being a contender, they’re hobbling into the playoffs. The Blues have lost almost 400 man-games to injury and illness this season, and as a result have not looked anything close to the contender that they were not all that long ago. By Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model, the St. Louis grades out as the 24th worst team at five-on-five with 45.9% mark. 

This is a result of the Blues’ inability to generate quality chances. They were the third-worst team on offense, generating only two expected goals per 60 minutes. St. Louis is average defensively. and although Jordan Binnington hasn’t been bad this season, he hasn’t been great either. In fact, it’s been his worst season in three years by save percentage and goals saved above expected. He has had a tough job this season, though. 

On the other side of the rink, whether we’re talking about shots, goals or expected goals, the Avalanche had the best differential on a per 60-minute basis. What you see is exactly what you get with the Avalanche. The team hasn’t really over performed, they’re just that good. Nathan MacKinnon is a beast (though health is a concern), but the Avalanche have so much more talent and far fewer injury questions. 

Philipp Grubauer has been really good this season, stopping more than 92% of the shots he’s faced, but the Avalanche have been so good defensively (first in expected goals against per 60 minutes) that he hasn’t had to be great. Fortunately for him, he probably doesn’t have to be great in order for Colorado to win this series, but it would certainly help. St. Louis has a chance, but not much of one. If their top stars can get healthy and stay healthy throughout the series, they might be able to do the impossible, but they’re going to need great goaltending from Binnington and a lot of luck.

2. Vegas Golden Knights (-240) vs. 3. Minnesota Wild (+ 190)

MIN-VGK

Of all the matchups that I was faced with handicapping throughout the regular season, the season series between the Golden Knights and Wild caused me the most pain. The Golden Knights are an elite hockey team and they should be able to handle a team like the Wild pretty easily. However, that hasn’t been the case. The Wild own a 5-3 record straight up against the Golden Knights this season and while there is a lot of noise in a season series, it’s become pretty clear that Minnesota is a bad matchup for Vegas.

The Golden Knights have held an edge in shot attempts but the Wild have done a very good job of limiting their scoring chances. According to Evolving Hockey, the Wild have owned over 52% of the expected goals in the season series. If we were just handicapping this upcoming playoff series based on how the teams performed against one another in the regular season, it would be tough to make the Golden Knights anything but a slight favorite. We can’t dismiss either team’s entire body of work, though, and Vegas has been a top-five team in many categories while Minnesota has struggled to stay above water at times, particularly down the stretch.

For example, the Wild owned a 52.5% (11th) share of expected goals (five-on-five) during the regular season while the Golden Knights owned a 54% share (fifth). The Golden Knights finished the season with a 54.5% (fourth) share of the shot attempts (Corsi) while the Wild finished with 46.8% (26th) share. The Golden Knights outscored opponents by 0.86 goals per 60 minutes; the Wild outscored opponents by 0.4 goals per 60 minutes.

These are two very good hockey teams but to say that Minnesota is better than Vegas, given everything we’ve seen, is laughable. They do have a pretty good shot at winning the series, though. It pains me to bet on the Wild here, after being on the other side of this wager all season long, but the market has done an about-face and I don’t necessarily agree with that. One thing that could be causing that though is the recent play of Wild goaltender Cam Talbot, who has allowed almost 12 goals above expected in his last six games, according to Evolving Hockey. Prior to that, Talbot had saved approximately five goals above expected. With Marc-Andre Fleury -- and to a lesser extent, Robin Lehner --on the other side of the ice, Talbot will have to find his game quickly. 

Fleury is a favorite for the Vezina trophy (given to the goaltender voted most valuable to his team) after posting a .928 save percentage and saving almost 20 goals above expected. The Golden Knights definitely have an edge in the goaltending department, especially considering how the two goaltenders have performed recently. Whether or not Max Pacioretty will be ready in time for the series opener remains to be seen and that could also have a big impact on the outcome. Vegas is deep, but the Golden Knights can use all the help they can get to defeat a Minnesota team that has gotten the better out of them all season long.

Pick: Minnesota Wild Series + 180 or better (BetMGM + 200)

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