BettorIQ’s NHL Play-In Series Betting Preview
The NHL gets its restart underway on Saturday and, thanks to a quirky format, bettors will be treated to eight best-of-five play-in game series right from the get go. The 16 teams are competing for a spot in the main playoff draw to follow, that will run along more traditional lines, with conference seeding and best-of-seven series. It’s a strange new world, indeed, but unlike the NBA, the NHL will be playing playoff-level games starting this weekend. Let’s take a look at a couple of the most interesting series matchups, who to play, and who to fade.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
This is the marquee matchup in the play-in round. The eight and nine seeds in the Eastern Conference both somewhat underperformed this season, particularly Toronto, who were favored to win it all before the regular season began. Despite Toronto’s chaotic season, that included the dismissal of Head Coach Mike Babcock, the team is a -160 favorite over the +140 underdog Columbus Blue Jackets to win this series. The team’s split two games during the regular season, but both encounters took place way back in October. Toronto looked to be getting its act together after Babcock was let go, but lost three of four before the shutdown. The Leafs defense is absolutely horrific. The team gave up a whopping 227 goals, more than four teams who did not even qualify for restart play. If it takes some time for intricate offensive play to come around league-wide, Toronto is in trouble. Any sort of adjustment period at the beginning of the restart favors Columbus. The Blue Jackets lack star power, but are very good at playing ugly, drag-out playoff style hockey. A staggering upset of juggernaut Tampa Bay last season is a testament to that. Columbus is healthier than its been all season and could easily take Toronto out of its comfort zone. The Maple Leafs have been inconsistent and confusing all season long, and there’s little to suggest that will change now. If Columbus can keep it simple, they can be a solid value play.
Play: Columbus to win series (+140) and Columbus Game One (+130)
Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
A lot of people were confused by the NHL’s restart format, and among the chief concerns were why exactly teams like Montreal needed to bother showing up at all. The Canadiens are 12th in the Eastern Conference but that doesn’t paint a true picture of just how much they don’t belong here. The team amassed only 71 points in 71 games. This was only three more than both the Sabres and Devils, who finished the regular season having played only 69 games. Montreal ended up seven points behind the Florida Panthers for 11th, and that was despite having played two more games than them as well. Montreal looked listless in a 4-2 scrimmage loss to Toronto, and it’s very hard to see how this team could be motivated for this series. The front office probably feels the same way. Thanks to an incredible development in the NHL Draft Lottery, the top pick remains available. The league has decided that all eight teams who are eliminated in the play-in round will have a 12.5% chance of taking the coveted first selection. Montreal is best served to take that chance. An upset against the Penguins would eliminate that possibility completely. For a team lacking in top-end talent, that would be a bad turn of events for the organization.
That said, even if they were to go all in, there’s little hope. The Canadiens face the battle-tested, playoff-experienced Pittsburgh Penguins here, and the gap in talent is severe. Stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin know the Penguins’ window is closing, and should be extremely focused against Montreal. Pittsburgh will want to get this series done quickly, so as to better prepare for the playoffs when they begin in earnest.
Play: Pittsburgh to win series (-220) and Pittsburgh -1.5 in Game One (+150)
NHL Stanley Cup Champion Future: Boston Bruins (+700)
Boston are joint favorites with Tampa Bay to win it all, but taking the Bruins here is still a reasonable play. Boston was the only team to amass 100 points during the regular season, taking only 70 games to do so. The team has a goal differential of +53, which leads the NHL. The Bruins have arguably the best top line in hockey, with superstar David Pasternak lining up with playoff legends Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Boston’s roster has remained fairly stable over the last few years, and there’s a degree of continuity here that should give them an advantage as they adjust to life in the bubble. In addition, the Bruins have a ton of veteran leadership. From the aforementioned Bergeron and Marchand, to blue-liner Zdeno Chara, and goalie Tuuka Rask, Boston will likely be able to navigate the NHL restart better than most. When it comes to the Stanley Cup, perhaps Boston’s biggest obstacle in normal times would have been fatigue. The Bruins have played a ton of hockey over the last couple of seasons. This included a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to St. Louis. That playoff journey featured two seven-game series and a total of 24 games. Boston looked worn out at times this season, despite leading the league in points. No team stands to benefit more than the long layoff. The Bruins are a bit banged up, with both Pasternak and Marchand dealing with nagging injuries. But, the group will be able to treat the qualifying section of the restart as something of a tune-up. This team should be raring to go come playoff time.