After the NHL’s revised playoff format of round-robins for the top four seeds in each conference and qualifying series for seeds 5-12, the Stanley Cup tournament really gets started Tuesday and Wednesday with the traditional round of 16.
Underdogs actually went 23-19 straight-up in the games played so far in the neutral-ice “bubble” sites in Toronto and Edmonton and the lower-seeded teams won four of the eight qualifying series as the 12th-seeded Canadiens (+ 190) and Blackhawks (+ 150) upset the No. 5-seeded Penguins and Oilers, respectively, while the No. 11 Coyotes (+ 110) knocked off the No. 6 Predators and the No. 9 Blue Jackets (+ 150) beat the No. 8 Maple Leafs in the only series that went the full five games.
However, as much as I’d like to see this as a sign of more upsets moving forward, I believe we’ll see a return to form in the eight first-round series for a couple of reasons.
For starters, I think playing all the games at one site will work to the superior teams’ advantage. In the seven-game series we’re used to seeing, the road team (almost always the underdog) tries to split the first two games and then gets to play the next two games at home with a better chance to steal the series. It’ll also help that the top four teams in each conference weren’t idle and were able to work off the rust in their round-robin games without the fear of being eliminated. The eight series favorites should come in rested and focused. That doesn’t mean I’m not still looking for upsets, but just that we need to be more selective.
In my “Tuley’s Takes” column in “Point Spread Weekly” two weeks ago, I touted the Blackhawks to upset the Oilers and that was a nice hit at + 150 (they also won Game 1 as + 135 'dogs), Game 3 at + 110 and Game 4 at + 115. But I’m not picking them to upset the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, the Vegas Golden Knights, as the Knights were my top pick to win the Stanley Cup at 6-1 in that same article.
The Golden Knights are clearly the better team and are the biggest first-round series favorite at -350. I’m on the Vegas bandwagon because of the two-headed goaltending team of Robin Lehner (ironically acquired from the Blackhawks earlier in the season) and Marc-Andre Fleury. Lehner won his two round-robin games while Fleury won his one game, but was bailed out by the offense in a 6-4 win over the defending champion St. Louis Blues.
The Blackhawks are the youngest team in the playoffs but led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and goalie Corey Crawford from their Stanley-Cup winning teams. They can still win a game or two, so I’ll start with taking them at + 180 in Tuesday night’s Game 1 (see it as a hedge against my Stanley Cup bet on the Golden Knights in case the Blackhawks make a series of this).
However, I think the better bet in the Chicago-Vegas series is the 1st Period Over 1.5 goals (-150). The Blackhawks play a wide-open style where they attack the goal but don’t always get back on defense (and often play sloppy when they do), so this leads to opportunities on both ends.
With the game total set at 6.5 goals, I believe the first period should be set at two goals, so we have a big edge here. The Blackhawks were 4-0 with this bet vs. the Oilers (and would have been 4-0 even if the total had been 2). Here’s hoping they score early and often.
Here are my other first-round takes (and passes):
Other series starting Tues.
Lightning (-240) vs. Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets squeaked by the Maple Leafs but I don’t expect them to get by the Lightning, who won’t take them as lightly as they did last year when Tampa Bay was the first President’s Trophy winner (for best regular-season record) to get swept out of the playoffs by the Blue Jackets.
Stars (-115) vs. Flames
Calgary has the best chance of any Canadian team to survive through the first round. I’m passing on the Flames in Game 1 as they’re only around even money (and opened -110 at some books) and hoping to get the Flames at plus-money later in the series.
Bruins (-160) vs. Hurricanes
The Hurricanes swept through the Rangers and are live underdogs here. Again, I’m not taking the series price but will take them + 120 in Game 1. Also, with Carolina’s goaltending and defense, I’d look at Under 5.5 in each game.
Series starting Wed.
Capitals (-160) vs. Islanders
The Islanders beat the Panthers 3-1 in their qualifying series and I give them a great shot to upset the Capitals in this round, which is more of a toss-up in my opinion. In fact, these two teams split their regular-season games 2-2 and the combined scores were 14-14 (and they have the not-so-secret-weapon of former Washington coach Barry Trotz calling the shots and knowing how to beat the Caps), so I’ll take the Islanders + 140 in the series as my only series bet. I’ll take the Islanders as underdogs. The Islanders are also playable at 120 starting in Game 1.
Avalanche (-300) vs. Coyotes
If you’re looking for a hot goalie to back, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper had a .950 save percentage in leading the Coyotes to the upset of the Predators. Colorado is pretty strong and I still expect them to prevail in the series and won’t be fading them in Game 1. However, Kuemper can steal a game or two and I’m expecting to back the Coyotes in Game 2 on Friday.
Flyers (-210) vs. Canadiens
The Canadiens upset the Penguins in the qualifying round, but I don’t expect them to complete a sweep of the Pennsylvania teams as the Flyers are the top team in the Eastern Conference and should dispose of the Canadiens in four or five games. Pass.
Blues (-200) vs. Canucks
The Canucks snuck by the Jets in the qualifying round but I expect a quick exit (maximum of five games) against the defending Stanley Cup champs, so I’ll be passing on this series as well.