NHL Picks: Monday May 31
Monday’s NHL slate sees two teams listed as prohibitive favorites. The Toronto Maple Leafs are huge favorites to finally take care of the Montreal Canadiens in Game Seven of their first round series. In the other matchup, the Boston Bruins are substantial favorites after a dominating game one win over the New York Islanders in the second round. Will either underdog be able to bark on Monday night?
NHL Picks: Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs Prediction
Series Tied 3-3
Alright, the joke's over.
That’s probably what fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are saying right about now.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have made the NHL playoffs every year since 2017, but they are yet to advance past the first round. In 2013, they blew a 4-1 lead in game seven to the Boston Bruins. They followed that up by losing two more seven game series to the Bruins in 2018 and 2019. In the NHL bubble last season, they lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round, a team who’s talent level paled in comparison to the Leafs.
It was all laid out perfectly for the Leafs with the restructured league due to the pandemic this season. The Leafs joined the all-Canadian North division; a division with a group of fun but obviously flawed teams. The Leafs were clearly the cream of the crop. They played their whole schedule against their own division. The best part was that the first two rounds of the playoffs would also be against their own division. Theoretically, this offered the Leafs the easiest path to the NHL’s Final Four of any of the other elite teams in the league.
Or so we thought.
After losing game one and losing their captain to injury, the Leafs rebounded with three straight wins to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Toronto looked in complete control against the lesser Montreal Canadiens; just like we all expected based on the composition of the two teams.
However, Montreal netminder Carey Price has performed well, Montreal’s gotten some contributions from youngsters like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, and two overtime wins later, the Habs have evened this series and forced a Game Seven.
To say all the pressure is on the Leafs is an understatement. This wasn’t supposed to happen this year. In the past, you could excuse the Leafs losses because they were playing solid teams such as the Bruins and Capitals. But Montreal? They were the worst team in the league to qualify for the playoffs.
This Leafs team is littered with talent and should be able to make quick work of this Habs team. However, they haven’t. Now, they must play a game seven against a goaltender who was once widely considered the best in the league. In these playoffs, he’s posted a +5.9 goals saved above expectation. If I needed to win one game, Carey Price would be towards the top of my list.
It’s true the Leafs have been the better team in this series as well as all season long. That’s why the odds are so wide for this game seven. However, the pressure has to be felt by this Leafs team. Auston Matthews, Mike Reilly, Mitch Marner and others have been here for the prior disappointment. Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza have reputations as playoff underperformers from earlier in their career.
I’ll take Montreal, the team with no pressure and the better goaltender, as a substantial underdog. I definitely think there’s value at this inflated number.
NHL Picks: New York Islanders vs. Boston Bruins Prediction
Boston Leads 1-0
Saturday night was utter domination by the Boston Bruins. In game one, Boston had 66% of the shot attempts, 76% of the scoring chances, 86% of the high danger chances and 80% of the expected goals.
It was a particularly dominant line for “The Perfection Line” featuring Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. When the trio was on the ice, Boston held the following advantages: 23-6 in shot attempts, 17-3 in shots, 16-4 in scoring chances, 4-2 in high danger chances, and 1.09 - 0.13 in expected goals.
Additionally, Pastrnak scored three times as his hat trick ended up being the difference in a 5-2 win.
Coach Bruce Cassidy had the last line change and therefore controlled the matchups as the home team. He chose to mostly play Bergeron’s line against the Islanders’ line featuring Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier. This line was the Isles’ most effective in the first round, but they posted just a 15.9% expected goal rate in game one. So not only did the “perfection line” contribute three goals, they also shut down New York’s most dangerous group.
Not only did the Bergeron line absolutely dominate the Isles, but so did most of the Bruins. Boston had three lines play to an expected goal rate of 86% or better. The Islanders had no player post an expected goal rate better than 50%. In fact, the team managed to generate just 0.79 expected goals at even strength.
However, despite the utter domination, New York was never out of this game. They scored first, they were tied entering the third period, they had a powerplay with a chance to take the lead mid-way through the third period, and they were only one shot away from tying the game until the final minutes.
Therein lies the beauty of the New York Islanders.
They are willing to play ugly hockey. They’re willing to defend, chip the puck out, and survive another shift. They receive good goaltending and they’re usually good at generating high danger chances off the counter-attack. No matter how poorly they play, it’s very rare the Isles are completely out of a game.
Sure, New York has some issues and problems they need to solve. Playing to a 20% expected goal rate is no recipe for success. There are two main questions for the Isles entering game two.
Ilya Sorokin got the start for New York after he won all four games for the Isles in round one. The rookie netminder kept the Isles within striking distance for most of the night, stopping 35 shots. None of the blame should go to Sorokin as he was the main reason the score was respectable for most of the night.
However, he was beaten four times, struggled with rebound control at times, and the Isles have a veteran potential Vezina nominee on the bench. Semyon Varlamov was the Isles’ number one goaltender throughout the season, but a combination of injury and shaky play let Sorokin take the reins this postseason.
Barry Trotz did not close the door on making a goaltender change for game two, which is something to watch. There’s no real difference between the two netminders as Varlamov posted a +2.7 goals saved above expectation during the season while Sorokin posted a +2.5 mark. Varlamov won five of six starts against Boston during the season, for whatever that’s worth.
Additionally, the Isles won’t be in this series long if the Pastrnak line shuts down the Nelson line and the Isles get no production from Mathew Barzal. Barzal is the Isles’ most talented forward, but he has just one even strength point in these playoffs. Trotz hinted at possible changes amongst his forward lines, so it’ll be interesting to see if offensively challenged pest Leo Komarov is demoted and Barzal is given a more offensive minded winger to play with.
With the Bruins as -200 favorites, it’s simply not a line I’d be willing to bet in an NHL playoff game. I’d understand staying away as the Isles looked completely overmatched in the series opener. However, I’m personally going to throw a few shekels on the Isles at +170. I think there’s value there on a team that knows how to defend and win close games. They can’t possibly be worse in game two than they were in game one.