The Rangers battled back from deficits in both the first round (3-1) and second round (2-0), but they won’t be facing off against any more second- or third-string goaltenders.
Like the Rangers, the Lightning’s MVP is their goaltender, and Andrei Vasilevskiy might be the only goaltender better than Igor Shesterkin right now. Vasilevskiy held the Panthers (the NHL’s best offensive team in 26 years) to just three goals in four games, while Shesterkin held the Hurricanes to fewer than 2.0 goals per game. If either team goes on to win the Stanley Cup, goaltending will be a big reason why. Shesterkin has posted a .928 save percentage in the playoffs, just behind Vasilevskiy’s .932 mark.
Lightning forward Brayden Point is still out with an injury, and even though the team says he is progressing, information has been scarce (as it often is at this time of year). It doesn’t look like Point will play anytime soon, so I’m handicapping the series with the assumption he’ll be out of the lineup. It’s a big loss for the Lightning, especially considering that goals will likely be hard to come by in the Eastern Conference finals.
Both teams have generated goals at about the same rate in the playoffs (3.2 per 60 minutes) but that’s probably going to change. The total for Game 1 is set at 5.5 and shaded to the Under at -115, which leads me to how I’m approaching this series from a wagering perspective: betting on a lot of players not to score points.
Take Anthony Cirelli, for example. Point’s injury makes handicapping Cirelli’s production a lot tougher, and that’s a shame. Heading into the second round, I was hoping to bet Cirelli not to get points in each game, and that would’ve been a profitable approach given that he only picked up one point in seven games. He’s only picked up two points in the playoffs so far, as his main assignment is to shut down the other team’s best players. With Point still out, there’s always a chance Cirelli will be put in a role — even temporarily — that requires him to generate offense.
It will be easier to handicap player props once it’s clear how Lightning coach Jon Cooper plans to match lines in Games 1 and 2. For instance, if Artemi Panarin gets stuck with Cirelli for two games, there will likely be value betting on neither player to score points on a game-by-game basis. Panarin has been productive (11 points in 14 games) but he’s looked lost at times and will be facing players that have experience taking superstars out of the equation.
The Lightning have experience shutting down teams and making life easier on Vasilevskiy. If the series is low scoring, it probably works in their favor. Vasilevskiy has allowed two or fewer goals in 32 playoff games over the last three seasons, and the Lightning only lost two of those games.
The Rangers have home-ice advantage to start the series, but my model estimates the Lightning will win approximately 65 percent of the time. A fair series price is around -185, which means there isn’t quite enough value to justify laying -175 on the series. The series spread (-1.5) is sitting at even money, but it’s -EV because my model suggests the Lightning will win in six games or less around 49 percent of the time. As far as Game 1, I bet Under 2.5 goals on the Rangers team total (including overtime) at even money.