One tournament ends, another begins.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs isn’t quite equal to the NCAA Tournament in local sports books as far as overall action and interest. But it’s every bit the event in terms of gambling options and moneymaking opportunities with games practically every day over the next two months and slightly softer markets to bet into.
Let’s make use of the one-day pause between postseason events to assess the series prices of every first-round NHL pairing and weigh in with picks on each of them.
Read Talking Points’ first-round Stanley Cup Playoff preview below.
Tampa Bay Lightning (minus-400) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (plus-300)
Game 1, 4 p.m. Wednesday: Tampa Bay minus-220, Columbus plus-200.
The betting market can struggle to price true outliers, and the Lightning are a true outlier in every sense. They tied the NHL record with 65 regular-season victories, put up 128 points in the standings and have three 40-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. Columbus is not as easy of a first-round opponent as Tampa deserves — especially not from a pure talent standpoint — and should win a game or two, but its chances at an upset are extremely slim.
Pick: Tampa Bay minus-400.
Boston Bruins (minus-150) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (plus-130)
Game 1, 4 p.m. Thursday: Boston minus-150, Toronto plus-135.
This is a rematch of a first-round series that the Maple Leafs pushed to seven games before falling last year. There’s little argument that they’re better equipped to challenge the Bruins this year, what with a star forward added to their lineup in Jon Tavares. Toronto looked like an immediate juggernaut with Tavares early in the season before falling back toward average over the second half. Boston has been much better in recent months, but it’s a losing strategy to isolate certain segments of the season and weight them far heavier than others. Over a full sample size, these teams are closer to even than the line suggests.
Pick: Toronto plus-130.
New York Islanders (plus-125) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (minus-145)
Game 1, 4:30 p.m. Wednesday: New York minus-110, Pittsburgh Even
This might be the toughest series to handicap because there’s a case to be made that both teams are overvalued. The Islanders are the biggest interlopers in this year’s postseason field dating back to the beginning of the season considering they were plus-240 to reach the playoffs. And that’s not the only way they’ve over-performed. New York’s underlying numbers aren’t that strong: It’s the league-leader in PDO and the last-place playoff team in Corsi rating. But the Penguins aren’t available at any bargain either. There’s a tax to back them based on their pedigree, which is arguably unreasonable in a season where they didn’t reach the efficiency of their back-to-back Stanley Cup championship seasons. Pittsburgh has far more top-flight talent, but tread lightly.
Pick: Pittsburgh minus-145.
Washington Capitals (minus-160) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (plus-140)
Game 1, 4:30 p.m. Thursday: Washington minus-145, Carolina plus-130
Speaking of paying premium prices to back recognizable stars with the comfort of past success, here’s an even better example in the Capitals. This number has actually drifted a dime further in Washington’s direction since opening despite metrics indicating this will be one of the tightest first-round matchups. No team is better at generating chances than Carolina, and few still alive are worse at allowing them than Washington. The Capitals struggled enough defensively down the stretch before losing top-pairing blue-liner Michal Kempny, who will miss the entire playoffs. If Washington had lived up to its (possibly unfair) reputation for early playoff exits a year ago instead of winning the Stanley Cup, this price would be significantly lower. Don’t take an artificially inflated side like Washington.
Pick: Carolina plus-140.
Nashville Predators (minus-180) vs. Dallas Stars (plus-150)
Game 1, 6:30 Wednesday: Nashville minus-160, Dallas plus-145
The Central division bracket is the one pod where it feels believable that any of the four teams could come out alive. Yes, even the wild-card Stars. So much of the playoffs come down to a hot goalie, and Dallas’ Ben Bishop might be best guess to catch fire. He led the NHL with a .934 save percentage and was second with an 1.98 goals against average. Combine that with Nashville’s rather uninspiring offense, and Dallas might have a real chance. The Predators should win —their ceiling is higher than the Stars — but they shouldn’t be nearly a 2-to-1 favorite.
Pick: Dallas plus-150.
Winnipeg Jets (plus-110) vs. St. Louis Blues (minus-130)
Game 1, 5 p.m. Wednesday: Winnipeg minus-115, St. Louis plus-105
Recency bias appears to be the only reason St. Louis is favored in this series. Well, and Jordan Binnington. St. Louis surged in the second half of the season and ultimately came one point shy of an improbable Central Division title behind tremendous goaltending from Binnington. But goalie play is often erratic and highly susceptible to regression, meaning there’s real reason to doubt that the rookie can maintain his same level into the playoffs. The Jets have struggled defensively but are expected to get back both Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey for the postseason. Let’s not forget that in the first half of the season, Winnipeg was considered a primary Stanley Cup contender and St. Louis struggled mightily, even to the point of firing coach Mike Yeo.
Pick: Winnipeg plus-110.
San Jose Sharks (minus-105) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (minus-115)
Game 1, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday: San Jose minus-135, Vegas plus-125
With apologies to Boston-Toronto and Winnipeg-St. Louis, the betting odds are right: This is the closest first-round playoff series. It would be no surprise if either of these teams reached the Stanley Cup because both of these teams appear to have untapped potential. The Golden Knights are a different team with Mark Stone, who arrived at the trade deadline. The Sharks are a different team with Erik Karlsson, who’s hardly played down the stretch. The Sharks have higher-caliber scorers. The Golden Knights have a much better goaltender with Marc-Andre Fleury against Martin Jones. This is one of those series that’s so tough that it might be best to default to home-ice advantage.
Pick: San Jose minus-105.
Calgary Flames (minus-220) vs. Colorado Avalanche (plus-180)
Game 1, 7 p.m. Thursday: Calgary minus-185, Colorado plus-165
Here’s another matchup that might come down to how a gambler handicaps a particular goalie. If Philipp Grubauer can maintain his hot streak that led the Avalanche to squeaking into the playoffs, then they could pull off the biggest upset of the first round. If he falls back down to Earth and plays closer to his normal expectation, then this could get ugly. Calgary’s skaters were dominant all year, helping overcome liabilities in the crease. There’s no real value on either side with this line, but it would take a superhuman effort for the Avalanche to have a chance and it’s typically best to stray from counting on superhuman efforts.
Pick: Calgary minus-220.