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Pete Truszkowski finds the best bets for today's NHL playoffs

NHL Playoff Picks - Thursday May 20

We have a four game playoff slate for Thursday night in the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will finally play Game 1. The Florida Panthers will go on the road after losing the first two games of the series at home to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Meanwhile, the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild come home after splitting the first two games on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights respectively.

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Prediction

Tampa Leads 2-0

View odds for the matchup here.

Have you ever done something even though you knew beforehand it probably wasn’t a great idea? Like maybe take that last shot of tequila that definitely wasn’t necessary? Well, I’m about to do that here.

One of the hardest predicaments for a sports bettor is when our research and the numbers tell us something and then our heart and brain just can’t agree with it. In my mind, I know that betting against the defending Stanley Cup Champions who just won two games on the road probably isn’t a great idea. I can definitely see a world where the Lightning come out guns-a-blazing and the Panthers are deflated and this is a rout.

However, all the numbers say that the Florida Panthers are extremely unlucky to be down 2-0 in this series. They’ve played to a 57% expected goal rate, 53% shot attempt share and actually outscored the Lightning at 5-on-5 thus far in the series. In game one, Tampa scored three on the powerplay and one shorthanded. In game two, Andrei Vasilevskiy was spectacular to thwart the Panthers.

I also believe the oddsmakers are overstating home-ice advantage for the Lightning here. Tampa Bay actually has a worse home playoff record over the past five seasons than they do on the road. With the line closing near a pick’em for the first two games, the Lightning being a -150 favorite in this spot is a bit much.

The Panthers played the first two games at home for a reason; they were better than the Lightning this season. Not only in terms of their record and point totals, but the Panthers were better than the Lightning in most major analytical categories. Florida has continued to play solidly in these playoffs. At +130, I think the Panthers are worthy of a bet to get back in this series.

Panthers vs Lightning Prediction:

Florida Panthers ML +130

New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins Prediction

Series Tied 1-1

View odds for the matchup here.

For game two of this series, I recommended a bet on the under. Despite two early goals from the Penguins, the total was never in jeopardy. It was a rocking chair affair for under bettors. I expect similar results from this series as we move forward.

Islanders coach Barry Trotz and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan are very familiar with each other. They’ve been coaching in the same division for six seasons and this is the fifth playoff series between the two coaches. In my experience, familiarity breeds defensive play.

The Penguins top line featuring Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust has posted a 63.6% expected goal mark through the first two games. Particularly concerning for the Isles is that they’ve matched up Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock against Crosby for 65% of Crosby’s even strength time on ice. With the Isles now at home, Trotz will continue to seek out this matchup. Pelech and Pulock were arguably the best shutdown pairing in hockey during the regular season, but they haven’t been up to the task through the first two games. I would expect this to change based on their track record.

On the other side, the Isles’ top line with Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov has played to a paltry expected goal rate of just 25.5%. Mike Sullivan has largely matched Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese against the Isles top trio. The Penguins shutdown line has an expected goal rate of 75%.

The Islanders haven’t been the same team since mid-March when they lost captain Anders Lee. They haven’t been able to find the right combination of lines and in turn they’ve struggled to score goals. Outside of the energy fourth line for New York, the other three lines have expected goal rates below 46% in this series. As mentioned above, Mat Barzal, the Isles’ best offensive player, has particularly struggled.

While the Isles would prefer not to spot the Penguins an early 2-0 lead again, they feel most confident playing in low scoring games. They thrive on turning games against more talented teams into coin flips by keeping them low-scoring. With Trotz being one of the better coaches in the league and now having home-ice advantage, I expect him to find the combination that slows down Crosby and company.

For that reason, I would once again look towards the under here on Long Island.

Islanders vs. Penguins Prediction

Bet: Under 5.5 Goals

Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs Prediction

Game One

View odds for the matchup here.

The final playoff series finally gets underway as the Toronto Maple Leafs play host to the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs are odds-on favorites to come out of the division. They’re substantial favorites to win both this game and this series. Based on their regular season, it’s well deserved.

The Leafs had the second best expected goal rate amongst all teams during the regular season behind just the Colorado Avalanche. They have high-end talent such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. The team has also added depth in the form of Nick Foligno, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton.

However, Toronto has a recent history of playoff failure, embarrassment and disappointment. And as we know with teams like that; it’s a story until it isn’t.

Their opponent is the Montreal Canadiens who I was very excited about at the start of the season. However, their recent play hasn’t been particularly impressive and they are no longer doing the things that made them an analytical darling.

Montreal opened the season on fire, then they started to struggle. They fired coach Claude Julien and under new coach Dominique Ducharme they went just 15-16-5. With the change in coach, comes a change in system and structure. Montreal went from being an elite analytical team to a team that ranked 20th in the league down the stretch.

However, there’s reason to hope that Montreal can turn things around. First, they’ll be getting some important pieces back from injury. Goaltender Carey Price, defenseman Shea Weber and forwards Brendan Gallagher and Philip Danault will be in the lineup after extended absences. Additionally, Montreal finally got a break after a compressed schedule over the last month of the season.

Both teams have question marks between the pipes. For the Leafs, Jack Campbell will make his playoff debut. Campbell was tremendous when he took over for the injured Fredrik Andersen during the regular season, but he’s started to come back down to earth in recent weeks. On the other side, Carey Price is not the goalie he used to be. Price, once widely considered the best goalie in hockey, posted a -1.5 goals saved above expectation mark on the season.

Montreal has some offensive firepower that can try and keep up with the Leafs. I expect Toronto to get theirs. For that reason, I think we might see goals in this series.

Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs Prediction

Bet: Over 5.5 Goals

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Minnesota Wild Prediction

Series Tied 1-1

View odds for the matchup here.  

Entering the playoffs, many saw the Vegas Golden Knights as the team most likely to challenge the Colorado Avalanche on their quest to hoist the Stanley Cup. Vegas entered as considerable favorites to eliminate the Minnesota Wild in this first round series. It might be surprising to some to see the Wild leave Las Vegas with a split of the first two games.

However, the Wild have been good to hockey bettors all season long. Their analytical profile suggests a very good team that’s more than capable of making this a series and even winning it outright.

Minnesota’s bread and butter is their defensive system. They are way more concerned about the quality of the chances they allow than the quantity. They often lose the shot attempt battle, but no team gave up less high danger chances during the season than Minnesota. The Wild had the third highest expected save percentage during the regular season which means they usually make their goaltenders job easy.

Game 1 of this series went to overtime scoreless, and then we had to wait nearly half the game for a goal in Game 2. The teams have combined for just five goals thus far.  Both goaltenders have been spectacular as Talbot has stopped 67 of 70 shots (95.7%) and Fleury has turned aside 63 of 65 (96.9%).

Max Pacioretty has missed the first two games of this series and will be a game-time decision for Game 3. His presence has been sorely missed as Vegas’ lack of finishing ability was an issue in the first game. He’s the best pure goal scorer on the roster and adds a dangerous element to their powerplay. If he returns, Vegas will get a significant boost but until then, they’re missing one of their most dangerous scorers.

Kirill Kaprizov will likely win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, but he’s yet to get on the board in these playoffs. However, Kaprizov along with linemates Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello have played to a 65.2% expected goal rate. With coach Dean Evason now in control of line matchups, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kaprizov can get going against potentially lesser competition.

With how this series has been played, there’s no reason to believe we’ll see an onslaught of goals from these teams. The under has hit in the first two contests and I’d look that way again here.

Golden Knights vs. Wild Prediction

Bet: Under 5.5 Goals

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