Handicapping the NHL: Playoff Preview

Handicapping the NHL: Playoff Preview

This article is part of our NHL Picks series.

Following a modified 56-game schedule that exclusively featured inter-division matchups, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to bring us two more rounds of divisional clashes. RotoWire will bring you a breakdown of each division ahead of the start of postseason play. AJ Scholz looks at the series and Stanley Cup odds courtesy of the DraftKings Sportsbook

East Division Matchups

Pittsburgh Penguins (-139) vs   New York Islanders (113) - Game 1 Sunday, 12:00 PM ET

Both clubs added at the trade deadline with the Isles bringing in Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri accounting for just six points in 30 contests while the Penguins acquired Jeff Carter, who has 11 points of his own in 13 games. That addition has given the Penguins a third line composed of Carter, Jared McCann and Frederick Gaudreau which will be tough for the Isles to match up against. The All-Star factor also favors Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang all expected to be healthy and rested leading into Game 1. If there is an edge for New York, it's between the pipes, assuming Semyon Varlamov (undisclosed) is healthy enough to play. Otherwise, the Islanders could be sung if they have to utilize Ilya Sorokin

AJ's Pick: Without having to give up in the way of juice on this one, I like the Penguins to take the series straight up at -139, including picking the first game of the series with Pittsburgh at -127 to double down on the opening game. Pittsburgh's home record (22-4-2) is one of the best in the league this season

Washington Capitals (125) vs Boston Bruins (-155) - Game 1 Saturday, 7:15 PM ET

Despite coming in third place in the division, the Bruins have the best series odds in the East to get past the Capitals in their opening-round series. The two clubs evenly split their regular-season matchups 4-4 but Boston doesn't have the same injuries woes as the Capitals, who could be without T.J. Oshie (lower body), Evgeny Kuznetsov (COVID-19 protocols) and Ilya Samsonov (COVID-19 protocols). Still, Washington features world-class sniper Alex Ovechkin who is capable of taking over any series. In terms of forward depth, neither club offers much outside of the top-six. A resurgent Taylor Hall, who was added to the B's roster at the trade deadline, has meshed well with David Krejci with the duo racking up 35 points in 16 games together. 

AJ's Pick: The continued absence from practice of Kuznetsov and Oshie certainly gives me some pause but the fact that you can get value out of Washington has me taking them straight up in the series. This is unlikely to be a quick series given how evenly matched the two clubs are, so don't sleep on the total games played at over 6.5 (+230) to grab some additional value. 

Central Division Matchups

Carolina Hurricanes (-240) vs Nashville Predators (190) - Game 1 Monday, 7:00 PM ET

After racking up 34 goals in the 2018-19 campaign, Viktor Arvidsson (undisclosed) managed a combined 25 markers in the previous two seasons but would likely still jump right into the top-six role and bolster the depth of the Preds and give them two viable scoring lines. Even with Arvidsson, however, Nashville simply doesn't have the depth to match up with Carolina which is poised to roll out Andrei Svechnikov (undisclosed) and Jordan Staal (undisclosed) in a third line. Well known for their defensive depth on the blue line, the Predators may actually be outclassed by the likes of Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei. Between the pipes, Juuse Saros has stepped into the No. 1 ole this season and set personal bests in wins (21), GAA (2.28) and save percentage (.927) while the starter situation is a little murkier for coach Rod Brind'Amour who will have to decide between newly returned Petr Mrazek or rookie sensation Alex Nedeljkovic

AJ's Pick: Carolina figures to overpower the Predators in nearly every aspect of the lineup which is why they are such heavy favorites. Instead of laying up at -240, I'm turning to the exact series outcome to grab some value with the Hurricanes winning 4-1 coming in at +350. That would see the Canes winning the first three games at home, where they are 20-3-5, and then just picking up one of two in the Music City. 

Florida Panthers (116) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (-143) - Game 1 Sunday, 7:30 PM ET

As good as the Panthers have been this season – from averaging 3.36 goals per game (third-best in the NHL) to a dynamic power play converting at 25.6 percent (second-highest in the league) – this series figures to come down to one man in Nikita Kucherov. The dynamic winger hasn't played this season due to a hip injury but in the five seasons prior to this year, only Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane topped Kuchereov's 464 points, which includes an unmatched 166 power-play points. Add in the return of Steven Stamkos who has been out since early April and you've got two key top-six contributors and No. 1 power-play unit back in the lineup. 

AJ's Pick: The potential return of the Bolts' stars has me willing to give up some juice at -143 to make it past the Panthers. I expect Kucherov and Stamkos to need some time to get their legs under them, which has me taking Florida in Game 1 at +102 but I anticipate the duo will be back to full steam down the stretch and help Tampa take the series

North Division Matchups

Toronto Maple Leafs (-275) vs Montreal Canadiens (210) - Game 1 Thursday, 7:30 PM ET

There is no bigger favorite in the first round than the Leafs over the Habs at -275, no doubt a result of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews sitting at fourth and fifth respectively in the league points race with one more game yet to play. For his part, Matthews will walk away with the Rocket Trophy after racking up 41 goals this year, putting him eight clear of Connor McDavid. The Leafs have just gotten back Frederik Andersen following a two-month absence and he put together a subpar outing versus Ottawa in which he conceded four goals on 28 shots. On the other end of the ice, Carey Price (concussion), Shea Weber (upper body) and Brendan Gallagher (thumb) have all missed significant time and will no doubt have some rust to shake off with little time to do so. 

AJ's Pick: This matchup is a good opportunity to take a look at the Series Spread in order to get some value. Taking the Leafs at -2.5 games provides some excellent value at +170, which feels like a safer bet than the Habs at +210. If you don't like the risk on that play, you can still take Toronto at -1.5 games for -129, which is better than the series price. 

Edmonton Oilers (-186) vs Winnipeg Jets (150) - Game 1 Wednesday, 9:00 PM ET

When you've got the two leading scorers in the league in Connor McDavid (104) and Leon Draisaitl (83), you should be expected to go into a best-of-seven series as a heavy favorite. You combine that with the recent form of Mike Smith, who is 9-3-1 with a .927 save percentage and one shutout since the start of April. On the blue line, Tyson Barrie has racked up 23 points with the man advantage while logging minutes on the league's best power play in the league (28.1 percent). If there is a question with this team, it's the lack of organizational depth as only seven players reached the 20-point mark this year.

AJ's Pick: This feels like a series that could go the distance, especially with Connor Hellebuyck having posted shutouts in two of his last three contests. As such, I'll avoid laying the odds with the series line and look to the total games played of over 6.5 to bring back +230. On the flip side, if you anticipate McDavid and company steamrolling the Jets, under 5.5 will get you +124. 

West Division Matchups

Colorado Avalanche (-335) vs St. Louis Blues (255) - Game 1 Monday, 10:00 PM ET

It shouldn't come as a surprise to see the odds heavily skewed in favor of the Avalanche who not only clinched the West Division with a win over the Kings on Thursday but also the President's Trophy for the most points in the league this year. As a result, they will have home-ice advantage for the entirety of the playoffs. Nathan MacKinnon (undisclosed) has missed four of the club's last five contests but is expected to return in time for Game 1 on Monday. With their star center in the lineup, Colorado has perhaps the best line in hockey with MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Meanwhile, with 30 wins in 40 appearances, a career-best 1.95 GAA and seven shutouts, Philipp Grubauer should be in the mix for the Vezina Trophy. For their part, the Blues have dealt with injuries to the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body), Vince Dunn (upper body) and Colton Parayko (undisclosed) as well as inconsistent goaltending from Jordan Binnington, who failed to reach the 20-win mark for the first time in his career. 

AJ's Pick: Sweeps don't happen that often but if there is a series that will end in just four games, it's certainly this one. Looking at the exact outcome odds, the Avs to win 4-0 gets you +300 which you can combine with Colorado -2.5 in the series spread for +145 and total games played under 4.5 for +400. 

Vegas Golden Knights (-240) vs Minnesota Wild (190) - Game 1 Sunday, 3:00 PM ET

Admittedly, I anticipated this series would be closer to what we are seeing out of Florida vs Tampa Bay given how close these teams matchup. If there is an edge in this contest, it likely comes down to experience among the forward ranks, as Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone have been in this position before while Minnesota is led offensively by youngsters Kirill Kaprizov (51 points), Kevin Fiala (40 points) and Jordan Greenway (32 points) who have a combined 31 games of postseason experience. While Cam Talbot is a near-lock to get the starting nod for Game 1, the Golden Knights situation is less clear though it likely doesn't matter given how well both Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner have performed this year. 

AJ's Pick: Despite all the reasons to expect Vegas to take the series, the odds in this contest are longer than I anticipated they would be. As such, I'll be taking the underdog Wild at +190 to return some major value. During the regular season, Minnesota had the upper hand with a 5-1-2 record and an even 24-24 goal differential. The value in this contest was simply too much to pass up. Considering pairing this up with the total games played at over 6.5 to get +230 value. 

Stanley Cup Odds

Despite the fact that they will likely face each other in the second round, the Avalanche and the Golden Knights have the best overall odds at +450 and +550 respectively. Whoever comes out of that potential matchup will get home-ice advantage throughout the remainder of the playoffs and will face the lowest remaining seed in the postseason in the semi-final round. 

AJ's Pick: Having said that, there aren't any favorites that offer the same level of forward depth, offensive talent on the blue line and solid netminding as the Carolina Hurricanes (+700). Since the start of April, they have given up the third-fewest goals per game at 2.23, have the third-best PK percentage at 90.3, fifth-best shots per game at 32.4. They'll have the home-ice advantage which is a huge factor, considering they went 20-3-5 within the confines of PNC Arena.

AJ's Longshot: Among the "dark horses", it's the Penguins at +1300 for me given their combination of speed and skill that will likely create problems for the rest of the East Division. Pittsburgh finished sixth in the overall standings this year with 77 points, so they likely won't end up with home advantage beyond the first two rounds, which could be a problem considering the club went 15-12-1 as the visitors. The Pens have the offensive firepower, if they can get the level of netminding from Tristan Jarry that saw him named to the All-Star Game last year, this team may be on its way to a fourth Stanley Cup in the Crosby/Malkin era. 

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AJ Scholz
Co-Host of PuckCast with Statsman and AJ and unabashed Penguins fan.
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