NHL Picks: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Predictions
Hockey season has arrived and we have a solid 5 game slate on Wednesday that begins at 5:30 P.M. EST.
For those that haven’t been following along closely, the NHL will play a 56 game regular season with only divisional play in order to limit travel during the pandemic. The shortened season and divisional rivalries will create urgency from the very beginning and we should settle in for good hockey every single night until July.
Covid-related absences, a shortened training camp, no pre-season and more limited media coverage has us in a position where we have a lot less to go off of than in a normal year. Which teams will come out hot and which teams will struggle out of the gate? That remains to be seen.
Despite the lack of certainty, we’re not afraid. It’s time to dive into the deep end as we have three bets for Wednesday night.
We start the season off with a classic in-state rivalry game in the City of Brotherly Love. Going into this season, I see one of these teams as underrated and one of these teams as overrated.
Philadelphia comes into the season with a lot of hype and momentum. Prior to the regular season being suspended, the Flyers were just on a nine-game winning streak. They then went into the playoff bubble and defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games before falling to the New York Islanders in seven games.
Young goaltender Carter Hart is a popular pick by a lot of hockey fans to contend for the Vezina Trophy this year. He was a big reason for the Flyers success down the stretch and into the playoffs, finishing 7th in goals saved above expectation.
However, Hart’s play overshadowed what was truly an average team. The Flyers were 15th in terms of expected goal share and 12th in high danger chances. They don’t have a surefire superstar to lead their team offensively now that Claude Giroux is getting up there in age.
Conversely, Pittsburgh was a top-ten team in both expected goals and high danger chances last season. Their disappointing play in the bubble, losing in the qualifying round, has neutered a lot of talk and hype around the team. Pittsburgh has now been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back years, leading hockey fans to move on to newer toys to play with.
Despite their lack of playoff success, Pittsburgh has still been an upper-echelon team during the regular season. Sure, they aren’t the dominant force they were a few years ago, but this is still a team that strikes fear into their opponent when they appear on the schedule.
With names like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, the star power is impossible to ignore. The team also traded goalie Matt Murray to Ottawa, meaning that young goalie Tristan Jarry is now the full time starter. This is big news for the team as Pittsburgh was trying to balance the fact that Murray was struggling in net without disrespecting the man who won two Stanley Cups for the organization.
I think both of these teams will be strong teams throughout the season, but I think Pittsburgh is the better team. At plus-odds, I’ll take them every day of the week. Not often will you get to bet the Penguins as underdogs.
The Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins ML +100
The Tampa Bay Lightning will take the ice for the first time since leaving the NHL Bubble in Edmonton with the Stanley Cup in September. Time to state the obvious about the defending champions: they are very good.
Tampa Bay finished third in the NHL last regular season with an expected goal share of 53.73%. They were also 4th in terms of high danger chance percentage. The Lightning also have one of the best defensive units in the league and Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the league’s best goaltenders.
The Lightning will be without superstar Nikita Kucherov for the majority of the season, which is something to keep in mind when betting the Lightning this season. Fortunately for Tampa, Steven Stamkos will return after missing the end of last year’s regular season and most of the playoffs. When one superstar goes down, another replaces him for the Lightning.
On the other end of the ice are the Chicago Blackhawks and it could be a long season for the fans in the Windy City. The Blackhawks will be going into the season with a goaltending tandem of Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. Subban is a 27 year old now, meaning the days of hoping he had untapped potential as a former 1st round draft pick are long gone. He’s never played more than 22 games in a season, and has never posted a save percentage better than .910. Collin Delia has played 18 career NHL games since the 2017 season, and his goals against average is over 3.5 goals per game.
Why is goaltending such a concern? Well by almost every analytic, the Blackhawks were the worst defensive team in the league last year. They were dead last in expected goals against/60 minutes, high danger chances against/60, and scoring chances against/60. Last season, the Blackhawks had the luxury of two of the best goalies in the league for most of the season with Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford. Unfortunately, Lehner was traded to Vegas at last year’s trade deadline and Crawford retired this off-season.
Subban and Delia are extremely unlikely to bail out the Blackhawks as much as Lehner and Crawford did last season. With the Blackhawks inability to limit high quality chances against them, the two goalies will be fishing a lot of pucks out of the back of their nets this season. There is no team more likely to take advantage of that than the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The bet: Tampa Bay TEAM TOTAL over 3.5 (-135)
A lot has been made about the new all-Canadian team division the NHL is rolling out this season. These teams are all in similar tiers when it comes to talent and for the most part, these teams play an exciting brand of hockey.
Two teams who make a habit of playing fun hockey are the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers.
Last season, both these teams found the back of the net plenty. Edmonton averaged 3.14 goals per game while Vancouver found the back of the net at an even better pace, averaging 3.25 goals per contest. Just as important as scoring is the ability to keep the puck out of your own net, and both these teams struggled in that regard. Both Edmonton and Vancouver allowed more than 3 goals per game.
Things might get even dicier in Vancouver now with the off-season goaltending change. Jacob Markstrom was a free agent and he and the Canucks could not come to terms on an extension. Markstrom went packing to Calgary, and the Canucks bought in former Vezina and Stanley Cup winning goalie Braden Holtby. Homerun, right? In the wise words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.”
Markstrom was 7th amongst all goalies last season in terms of goals saved above average. Markstrom was the most important player on the Canucks, hiding a lot of defensive deficiencies. Those that watched the team closely fought for Markstrom to get recognition for the Vezina trophy. His replacement, Braden Holtby, finished with the second worst mark in the league in terms of goals saved above average. Name recognition might lead the casual hockey fan to thinking Vancouver improved in net, but the numbers say otherwise.
Last year, Vancouver played 67 regular season games. 40 of those games went over the listed total. Over the past three seasons, Vancouver has had a player who has either won the Calder Trophy for league’s best rookie or finished second in voting. Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes make up an exciting young dynamic core.
On the Oilers side of things, goaltender Mikko Koskinen is average at best. Nobody would mistake him for one of the league’s better goaltenders. Offensively, they boast names like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. These two are arguably the best two players in the league, and they don’t even play on the same line. One of these two players will be on the ice for over half of the game. Players like Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yammamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi will add depth and offensive potential to the Oilers line-up.
These teams can fly offensively and they’re both challenged in terms of keeping the puck out of their net.
The bet: Over 6 goals (+100)
NHL Expert Picks
Penguins vs. Flyers - Pittsburgh Penguins ML +100
Blackhawks vs. Lightning - Tampa Bay TEAM TOTAL over 3.5 -135
Canucks vs. Oilers - Over 6 goals +100
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Our expert handicapper Pete Truszkowski is a die-hard Islanders fan but doesn't let it bias him. He was born and raised on Long Island and he's been betting on hockey for a decade. Don't miss out on his picks.