NHL Eastern Conference Champion Odds: Which Team Will Make the Cup Finals Out of the East?
NHL Eastern Conference Champion Odds: Which Team Will Make the Cup Finals Out of the East?
With the NHL's regular-season winding down, the playoff picture is becoming clearer by the day. In the Eastern Conference, Florida has run away with the top spot—they will almost certainly hold home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, should they make it that far. The next seven teams have been all but confirmed as playoff teams for a while now; all that is left to be decided is seeding (and therefore the first-round matchups). The Panthers are the clear favorites to win the conference at +250, while the next highest team is Carolina at +500. Does Florida deserve to be so far ahead of the pack, or are the sportsbooks overrating their chances? Let's take a look.
Heading into the playoffs, one thing is obvious about the Eastern Conference: it is going to be a bloodbath. As of this moment, four of the top five teams in the NHL standings are East teams, with Colorado as the sole Western Conference team in that range. All eight playoff teams in the East are within the top 12 NHL teams in terms of points percentage. Any of those eight teams could plausibly make a run to the finals (even Washington, given their form). That being said, it's our job to pick out the spots of value. Here is the first.
Boston Bruins to win the Eastern Conference (+800) (Bet $100 to win $800)
Boston's path to the finals is muddled at the moment. If the regular season ended today, they would face Carolina in the first round, entering the Metropolitan Division's bracket by virtue of the wildcard. However, the Bruins could conceivably overtake the Lightning for a top-three spot in the Atlantic, booking Boston a first-round showdown with Toronto. Either way, the Bruins will have to go through three high-end teams for this bet to cash, but the same can be said of every single team in the East.
Boston is a fascinating case because every year, without fail, there comes a point where it appears that Father Time is finally catching up with them. Somehow, they always manage to pull themselves back into the thick of things, and this year is no different. Many predicted that this would be the year where Patrice Bergeron (36 years old) and Brad Marchand (33) would begin to regress. Those people could not have been more wrong. Bergeron has 20 goals and 36 assists in 66 games this season while also being the top defensive forward in the game. Marchand has 73 points in 63 games. Their line has arguably been the best in the NHL this season, registering the highest xGF% among all forward lines. So much for that regression.
Not to be outdone, Boston's top defensive pairing of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk has been the best pairing in hockey. The duo has posted an expected goals share of 69.1%, significantly higher than the next best pairing (Sandin-Liljegren at 65%). There is a strong case to be made that McAvoy should be smack in the middle of the Norris conversation. He doesn't stand a chance of garnering enough votes to win due to his lack of eye-popping points production that the likes of Cale Makar and Roman Josi have produced. However, points are overrated as a means of evaluating defensemen, and McAvoy has had a much better year than either from a defensive standpoint.
If the Bruins have designs on making a deep run, it is necessary that their stars, well, play like stars. However, history has proven that star power alone isn't enough to get it done when the playoffs roll around. Boston will need quality production from their depth as well; based on the regular season, they may get it. None of their defensive pairings with a significant number of minutes played this season have expected goals share below 53.5%, and the vast majority of their forward line iterations have been well above 50%. As such, it passes the smell test that the Bruins have the second-highest 5v5 expected goals share in the NHL at 56.38%. Their ability to consistently generate high-quality offense at 5v5 bodes well for their odds of success in the playoffs.
There are two key question marks for the Bruins as we head down the stretch. The first is: can they stay healthy? David Pastrnak, who has 71 points in 69 games, remains out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury. If he is not back in time for the playoffs, it would be a major blow to the Bruins' chances. Hampus Lindholm, Boston's major deadline acquisition, is also currently out with an injury, although he is close to returning. The Bruins need to be fully healthy to compete in this stacked conference when the playoffs begin.
The second question mark is whether or not their goaltending can be consistent enough to make a deep run. The Bruins have gotten solid production out of the position by splitting starts between Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, but both are around league average in terms of goals saved above expected. All it would take is a few poor outings from one or both of them for the Bruins to potentially flop out.
In spite of the unlikely but plausible scenario where goaltending singlehandedly loses them a series, the Bruins are perhaps the team with the best value at the current prices. The odds via FanDuel give Boston the fifth-highest chance of winning the East, behind Tampa Bay (+500) and Toronto (+600) but just ahead of New York (+900) and Pittsburgh (+900). The Bruins deserve to be priced as highly as the Leafs and the Lightning, but they are not. Let's try to take advantage.
New York Rangers to win the Eastern Conference (+900) (Bet $100 to win $900)
"Are the Rangers good?" has been a question at the forefront of hockey discourse throughout the year. New York has been in a playoff spot all season in spite of, to be frank, bad underlying metrics. The Rangers struggled at even strength for most of the season, sitting near the bottom of the league in terms of 5v5 expected goals share. Up until the trade deadline, their winning was a result of two things: MVP-level goaltending and stellar special teams.
Any chance the Rangers have of making a splash in these playoffs runs through Igor Shesterkin, so let's start with him. Shesterkin is a near-lock to win the Vezina for the best goaltender in the league, and until recently was in the midst of the Hart discussion for league MVP. He leads the league in goals saved above expected with 34.35 and saves percentage with a .934. It's also worth noting that the public expected goals models do not account for the pre-shot movement; some private models do, and they have Shesterkin closer to the 40 GSAx mark. At the moment, he is the best goaltender in the league—the Rangers will only go as far as he takes them.
New York's power play has been a key source of offense for them this season—the unit currently ranks fifth in the NHL with a scoring rate of 25.5%. It isn't difficult to see why the Rangers' PP is so potent—the first unit includes the reigning Norris winner in Adam Fox, a 50-goal scorer in Chris Kreider, and two other bonafide superstars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Now, given that the refs tend to swallow their whistles in the playoffs, the positive impact of the Rangers' power play may diminish. Still, it is a key weapon for them and will play a part in their ability to score goals.
New York's 5v5 struggles might be a thing of the past. The deadline proved to be a pivotal moment for the Rangers—they added Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Justin Braun, and Tyler Motte by moving draft picks. In terms of addressing New York's major issues at even strength, the acquisitions seemed inadequate. However, Vatrano and Copp have revitalized the top-six, providing perfect complements to the Zibanejad-Kreider and Strome-Panarin lines, respectively. Copp, with 13 points in 12 games since joining the Rangers, has been particularly effective. The trades also provided addition by subtraction, as Copp, Vatrano, and Motte (pre-injury) pushed AHL-caliber players (Gettinger, McKegg, etc) out of the lineup. The proof is in the pudding—the Rangers have seen marked improvement at even strength since the deadline.
With Kaapo Kakko back in the lineup following an extended absence due to injury, this Rangers lineup suddenly looks deep. If he sticks on the third line with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil, it would allow Barclay Goodrow to anchor a fourth line consisting of himself, Kevin Rooney, and either Ryan Reaves or Dryden Hunt. On defense, K'Andre Miller has broken out over the last few weeks, solidifying the second pairing between him and Jacob Trouba. If the third pairing of Schneider and Nemeth/Braun can tread water, New York's defense appears to be on par with their offense.
The other factor in the Rangers' favor is that they are likely to draw one of the softer first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference. If they remain in second place, they will have home-ice advantage against the third-place finisher, which will be either the Penguins or the Capitals. Those are the two weakest teams in the conference at present, so that would be the optimal scenario for New York. Beyond the first round, the road gets much tougher.
Overall, New York is the biggest 'wildcard' in the East. It remains to be seen whether or not this Rangers lineup, which is still relatively young, can compete with the likes of Carolina, Florida, and Tampa Bay in a seven-game series. That being said, their goaltending, star power, and recent improvements give them the upside to make a deep run if a few things break their way. At +900, it's worth a shot.
NHL Eastern Conference Champion Picks:
- Bruins to win the Eastern Conference (+800) (Bet $100 to win $800)
- Rangers to win the Eastern Conference (+900) (Bet $100 to win $900)
Jason Yamaguchi is an avid New York sports fan. He has a proven record of providing +EV bets by combining traditional handicapping tactics with advanced statistics. You can follow him on Twitter @TopMoneyPicks to view all of his bets, including NFL, NHL, and MLB picks.