The NHL playoffs kick off tonight and I still argue that it’s the best postseason in all of sports, this despite the little known fact that hockey is NOT my favorite sport. Go figure.
The fact is, no other sport offers a war of attrition to earn the championship like hockey does. It’s pretty awesome. It can be even more awesome this season when you get involved in the action at the different New Jersey legal sportsbooks. We recommend checking out PointsBet because they are currently offering a $50 free bet with no deposit with code BROADLINES.
While the Flyers aren’t there this year, which isn’t a surprise, that doesn’t mean you can”t enjoy the playoffs. As a matter of fact, they should be a lot of fun, especially in the Western Conference, where nothing would surprise me.
The East is a bit more chalky, although I do think three of the four first round series can be pushed to the brink of a seventh game. Still, the East is top heavy and ultimately, one of the top four teams will reach the Final.
I’m not a peerless prognosticator. In my years of making playoff predictions, I have had seasons where I’ve been superb picking series results in advance and I’ve had years where I like to forget I even made selections.
And while I will give you my first round picks here as well as my Finals prediction, that’s not the purpose of this post.
Feel free to bet my picks but do so at your own risk of peril! Haha.
Instead, I wanted to offer you some perspective, so you can make your own educated betting choices as you decide how best to spend your dollars.
So without further ado let’s get to the matchups and then after that, I’ll give you a few other things to look at when betting individual games during the opening round.
EASTERN CONFERENCE BETTING ANALYSIS
No. A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. WC No. 2 Columbus Blue Jackets
The Lightning were historic this season. They matched the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most wins in an NHL season with 62. Their 128 points were the fourth most ever amassed by a team in the regular season in league history. They are as dominant a team as I’ve seen in the NHL in a long, long time.
And yet, there is a curse that exists on President’s Trophy-winning teams. In the 33 seasons that the President’s Trophy has been awarded to the team with the best regular season record, only eight have gone on to win the Cup. That’s an incredibly low number.
But look even further beyond that.
If you look at the 10 best seasons by points all time, only four of the other nine teams won the Cup, and all four were the same collection of Montreal Canadiens between 1973 and 1978. Only the Flyers back-to-back Championships in 1974 and 1975 broke up what would have been a near decade-long dynasty of arguably the greatest hockey team ever.
As for the other teams who had epic regular seasons, well those aforementioned 95-96 Red Wings lost on the Western Conference Final to eventual Cup Champion Colorado in a memorable series. But the others fizzled out waaaay early.
The 2015-16 Washington Capitals were bounced by their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round while the other three teams – the 1970-71 Boston Bruins, 2005-06 Red Wings and the 2009-10 Capitals – all lost in the first round.
This history could suggest Tampa is ripe for an upset at some point in these playoffs.
And Columbus is about as good a final team in the playoffs as there has ever been. OK, maybe the Los Angeles Kings were better when they were the No. 8 seed and won their first Cup in 2012. But that’s about it.
The difference between Columbus and say Washington is marginal at best. The top five teams in the Metropolitan Division were really close and it just so happens that the chips fell the way they did and the Jackets ended up fifth-best, meaning a date with the Lightning.
The Jackets come in red hot, going 7-1-0 down the stretch to get in the playoffs and are really gelling. They have been all-in on this season since the trade deadline when they kept their own pending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky and traded for another in Matt Duchene, and since they know they won’ be together after these playoffs, they can make a run with a little more reckless abandon, and that makes them dangerous.
If Bobrovsky can be Vezina-Bob rather than the guy who was scratched earlier this season because of team violations, then they can really put a scare into the Lightning.
I wouldn’t bet against Tampa, and I wouldn’t bet them because there’s no value in betting such a heavy favorite. But there will likely be a couple games where you can get away with betting Columbus and cash in on a big underdog. I honestly think that could happen as soon as Game 1.
I’ll take the Lightning in six, but I wouldn’t be stunned if this series goes seven, and you can make some good money by believing a little bit in the Blue Jackets if you pick Tampa to win in six (+380) or seven (+470)
No. M1 Washington Capitals vs. WC No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes
The Capitals are the defending champs. The Hurricanes arrived a year earlier than many expected. And while I don’t think this is a long series, I do think it’s an entertaining one.
The ‘Canes are relying on a goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek (remember him?) and Curtis McElhenny, and although Mrazek has been good of late, he’s still Petr Mrazek, and the Capitals offense and power play are dangerous. So, I expect the Caps to score and score plenty.
Meanwhile, Braden Holtby had a second straight mediocre-at-best regular season for the Caps, although that didn’t matter last year as he flipped a switch and was great in the playoffs, leading to the Caps first Stanley Cup.
He could do the same this year – and he was slightly better in 18-19 than in 17-18, but Carolina’s offense has been rolling since January.
They have the fifth-most goals-per-game in the NHL since January 1, a stark difference to the first half of the season when they were terrible offensively.
The Caps are a solid play to win this series. Right now they are -155 at Fan Duel. That’s quality value as far as I’m concerned. I’ll take the Caps in five and I’ll supplement that by riding the over a bit if the number is nice each game – as it is for Game One at a low 5.5. High scoring hockey is on tap here. This is great value.
No. A2 Boston vs. No. A3 Toronto
Yet again, these two teams square off. And yet again, they are set to draw the eyes of the hockey world. Two Original six teams. A bitter divisional rivalry. Toronto has been eliminated by Boston in epic seven-game series’ in two of their last three playoff appearances, including last year.
The Bruins are the best team in the NHL not named Tampa. Bar none. They put up the record they did this season despite a rash of injuries to top end players. Their depth is the best in the game.
They have a good goalie in Tuukka Rask and a great combination of size, speed and skill.
Meanwhile, the Leafs are as good as offensive team as there is in the game today. They come at you with waves of scoring talent, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.
The difference between the two is Boston plays defense, Toronto does not.
The Leafs rely on Frederik Andersen in goal to be their best defender, and on most nights, he is. Despite just having average numbers this season, he deserves some Vezina consideration.
The problem is, his team plays so loose in front of him. If the Leafs even had a semblance of an above average defense, we’d be talking about them as a potential Cup team this year instead of a team that could be staring at another first round exit.
The positive for the Leafs is that Patrice Bergeron, Boston’s shutdown, perennial Selke-favorite center, can’t play every shift against both Auston Matthews and John Tavares since they are on separate lines, so the Leafs can get some matchup advantages at times during this series, which should allow them to hang with the better Bruins team.
But the Bruins can beat you in a variety of ways. They can play slow. They can play fast. They can play heavy. They can play light. They can play however the pace of the game dictates. And that’s what makes them so dangerous.
This’ll be a back and forth series between two heavyweights that shouldn’t be forced to meet so early in the playoffs (fix your format NHL) but the better team will prevail. Bruins in seven. As for betting this series, if you want to take the Bruins, at -145, that’s not a bad bet. Watch the over/under line though game-to-game. This series should be on the higher-scoring end, but it will depend on how Rask and Andersen are playing. I kind of like Over 6 goals in Game 1 though.
No. M2 New York Islanders vs. No. M3 Pittsburgh Penguins
If there’s a series I’m going to ask you to stay away from completely in terms of betting, it’s this one.
The Islanders have been a pleasant surprise this season, and finished on the plus side going 13-9-0 in their last 22 games. But they were 35-18-7 before that, so the bloom fell off the rose a little bit in the last month or so.
Still, credit Barry Trotz, who should be coach of the year for what he did with that team, for keeping them relevant all season and having them play an incredible, team-oriented, defensive system that does seem to have success in the playoffs.
But this is the Penguins we’re talking about. There’s a ton of experience here. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and now Jake Guentzel has to get added to the mix as an elite sniper in the sport.
The problem with the Penguins is they are too top heavy and don’t have the depth that made them dangerous in the past, and Matt Murray hasn’t been consistent in goal for quite awhile now.
The big question is, what wins out in this series, playoff experience, or a great coach and his system with a group of overachievers?
I’m not sure I can give you the answer there, but I’ll take the Islanders in seven games only because they’re playing their home games in the first round at the old barn – Nassau Coliseum – and that place will be loud and fun and give them a slight edge in the final game. But like I said, avoid betting this series at all costs.
WESTERN CONFERENCE BETTING ANALYSIS
No. P1 Calgary Flames vs. WC No. 2 Colorado Avalanche
Calgary is the favorite to come out of the West. This is not surprising as they had the best record in the conference, locked it up relatively early, and have a good, young, offensive minded team led by South Jersey’s own Johnny Gaudreau.
Yet, they’re the one favorite I have the least confidence in going into the playoffs.
I guess it’s their goaltending that makes me skeptical.
Veteran Mike Smith was their No. 1 coming into the season but started ceding games to David Rittich as the season progressed and the two ended up splitting the season with Rittich starting 42 games and Smith 40.
Neither had a standout season, and their numbers are indicative of average goaltending.
Well, you can’t win in the playoffs with average goaltending, it needs to be better than that. Especially against a team like Colorado who has the offensive firepower to leave you scratching your head as to what broke down when they score on you so quickly.
Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabroel Landeskog are a very dangerous top line, and they will get a bulk of the ice time for the Avs.
The Flames are deeper than the Avs, but if the Avs top line out plays the Flames top line, which is possible, then this pendulum could take a surprising swing.
It’s not that the Avs have significantly better goaltending, they don’t. But, Philipp Grubauer got hot at the end of the season and so did Colorado’s secondary scoring showed some real punch. It allowed the Avs to go 8-1-2 in their last 12 games to earn this playoff spot, and they are a hot team coming in.
Meanwhile, the Flames were just sort of going through the motions down the stretch, knowing they were going to be a playoff team and the top seed for awhile. They were just 9-9-0 in their final 18 games.
Yes, playoffs is another level, but Colorado isn’t just happy to be here. They game top-seeded Nashville a run for their money a season ago and this Calgary team isn’t as good as that Nashville team was, while this Colorado squad is better than its former self of a year ago.
There’s always one big surprise in the NHL’s first round, and this is me sticking my neck out and making a bold prediction here. Avalanche in six. It’s also a good value bet to get the Avs at +180. Also, with goaltending being what it is, this is another series where the over should hit more often than not, especially if it’s six or lower. It’s six for Game 1.
No. C1 Nashville Predators vs. WC No. 1 Dallas Stars
I’ll tell you up front that Dallas is a trendy pick here. You’re going to see a lot of people hopping on the Stars because of their defense and goaltending and the fact that Nashville is not a great offensive team and it has the worst power play of any playoff team.
It’ll be sexy to follow that wave and try and make some bucks betting on a hot underdog.
And while I’m not sold on this Nashville team as a Stanley Cup Finalist, I am sold on their experience and coaching enough to be certain that they will handle Dallas with relative ease.
With two good, veteran goalies in Ben Bishop (Dallas) and Pekka Rinne (Nashville), this series also has a feel of an old-timey, low-scoring, tight and physical series.
So there are a couple of good betting plays here.
- I always like Peter Laviolette in the first round as a coach. He knows how to get his team ready for the start of a long playoff run. This marks the eleventh time in his 16-years coaching in the NHL that he’s guided a team to the playoffs and in the previous ten, he’s been bounced in the first round three times – his first two years as a head coach with a scrappy but under-talented New York Islanders team and in his first season in Nashville in 2014-15. On the contrary, he’s taken three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final as well. Jim Montgomery, who coaches Dallas, reminds me of a young Lavy. I think long-term he gets the Stars back to prominence, but Lavy definitely has an edge here. The Preds are -180, which might seem steep for an NHL playoff series. But you’ll definitely get value there by combining it with:
- The over/under. Yes, it’s low for Game 1 at just five goals. But this series is going to be a defensive struggle, especially in the first game as the two teams take some time to feel each other out. It could open up a little bit as the series progresses, and if it’s still five by Game 4, flip and go over. But until then, you’re looking at a lot of 2-1, 3-1 games between these two teams.
So, in the end, I’ll take Predators in five.
No. P2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. P3 Vegas Golden Knights
For much of the season, I was saying the Sharks look like the team that’s going to come out of the West. They were really rolling for awhile, and then all of the sudden, something went awry and they veered way off course.
They finished the season 3-8-1, but two of those wins came in the last two games against an Edmonton team that had quit and a Colorado team who was still feeling the hangover of a playoff clinching overtime win against Winnipeg.
Something’s a little off with a Sharks team that, on paper, is as good, or better than any team in the West.
Conversely, Vegas is a better team than they were a season ago when the Knights made their miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season of existence.
Yeah, they finished 1-5-2 down the stretch, but they were pretty locked into the position they were in and basically took the foot of the gas.
It was how they played after the traded deadline, in which thy acquired should-be Selke Trophy finalist Mark Stone from Ottawa. They went 10-1-0 in their next 11 games, with six of those wins coming against playoff teams, including a 7-3 drubbing of the Sharks in San Jose.
Oh, and they have a goalie whose won a bunch of postseason games and is unfazed at this time of year in Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury played other-worldly in the playoffs last season and followed that up with a very strong year for Vegas this season.
Meanwhile, on the other side, the Sharks have Marin Jones and his sub-.900 save percentage in goal.
That’s a huge edge to Vegas.
Never mind the fact that they play at a different level at home in one of the toughest arenas in the league for a visiting team to play.
This is a bad matchup for the Sharks. It just is.
I’ll take the Knights in six, especially with them being a lower seed at -110.
No. C2 Winnipeg Jets vs. No. C3 St. Louis Blues
I saved the best first round series for last.
Yeah, Boston-Toronto will give it a run for it’s money, mostly because of the hype, but this is the series that will e the most nip and tuck from Game 1 through Game 6 or 7.
The Jets have more skill. The Blues are a better defensive team. The Blues are also riding a rookie goalie in Jordan Binnington who literally came out of nowhere to lead their incredible climb from the basement of the conference to almost winning the Central Division.
Meanwhile, the Jets have been less than stellar for a while now. That’s because their game is a bit easy to identify. They have a great power play, and they sort of wait for their chances with the man advantage to be aggressive. St. Louis will shut them down at five-on-five for long stretches, and that could frustrate the Jets.
And yet, you can’t lose sight of the fact that the Jets have such top-end skill that could find a way, as skilled players often do, in the most crucial of times.
And there’s always the potential that Binnington crumbles under the bright lights shining on the playoff stage. I don’t think he will, but if there’s a crack, or a weakness, these Jets are talented enough to exploit it.
The difference is the Blues play a more focused game. They aren’t as easily deterred from their game plan after giving up a goal or two. They have great poise. I’m not sure that’s as solid in Winnipeg.
The Blues have been playing the equivalent of playoff hockey since January 10, when they were in last place in the Western Conference, and have responded by going 28-8-5.
They’re going to be a tough out in these playoffs. And I don’t believe they’ll be going out in Round 1.
Give me the Blues in six, and I don’t care that they are a favorite in the series (-115) despite the Jets having home ice advantage.
To wrap up my picks, I don’t think anyone beats the Lightning, although if any team can it’s Boston. So, if you take the Lightning to win the Cup, back it up with a smaller bet on the Bruins.
Out West, I think it comes down to Vegas and St. Louis and I’ll take the Knights to get back once again. I don’t think they can beat either Tampa or Boston, but then again, I don’t think any Western team can beat either of them. So I wouldn’t lay money on a Western team to win the Cup.
But, Vegas at +650 and St. Louis at +700 are solid bets to reach the Finals.
Finally, a couple of individual game trends I want you to watch as you bet the games each night.
1. Small Road team favorites are consistently good plays
Home ice advantage is not that big of an advantage in the playoffs. It’s not like other sports. Hockey is weird that way. But, the betting public has not taken advantage of this as they keep betting home underdogs because, well, they’re the home team.
However, that doesn’t play out well… especially in the opening round.
As a matter of fact, since 2006, there have been 67 playoff games played where the road team is anywhere from a pick -em (-100) to -125 on the money line. In those 67 games, the road team is 46-21. That’s a 68.7% winning percentage.
Now, it’s also an average of between five and six times per year in the first round, which is usually about 10-15% of the games being played, so there aren’t many opportunities. But if you find them, take them. As a matter of fact, in Game Ones tonight Pittsburgh (-105) and St. Louis (-105) fit that criteria.
2. Lower seeds on the road coming off a loss will bring a good return on investment
This one you need to wait for after Game One in each series, but the fact is, you can make some surprisingly good money here, even losing more than you’d like.
Let me explain.
Since 2006, lower seeds coming off a loss in their next game on the road are 75-91. At first glance, that might not seem like a number you want to bet with, especially if you are losing 64.8 percent of the time.
But, if you consider that underdogs are flat out winning games 45.2 percent of the time in these situations, you are going to win a greater amount of money even if you lose more games. Just for kicks, lets say all the home teams win Game 1 this year (except Winnipeg, because you followed my above advice and bet the Blues). You then bet all seven road teams in this situation except St. Louis in Game 2 on the money line.
With all of them having odds likely in the +120 to +200 range, even if you hit on three of seven (43%) you’ll likely still make money because the four losses will cost you $400 but the three wins will likely pay out more than $400.
This one won’t make you a killing, but it will give you a return on investment probably in the +15 percent range, which is a good secondary bet to cover other potential losses and is a good addition to a system of betting that you might be putting together to improve your odds of winning.