NHL Playoffs – Conference Finals

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After what has felt like an eternity, the Stanley Cup playoffs resume with the Conference Finals starting in a few short hours.

If you’ve been following my column picks, here’s how we look since May 15th:

5/15 – 3-1-1
Game 1 – Red Wings at Blackhawks: Blackhawks ML (WIN), Under 5 goals (PUSH)
Round 2 Series Prices (after game 1 of PIT/OTT and LA/SJ): Kings -245 (WIN), Rangers EVEN (LOSS), Penguins -430 (WIN)

5/18 and 5/19 – 4-2-1
Game 2 – Red Wings at Blackhawks: Blackhawks ML (Regulation only, LOSS), Over 5 goals (PUSH)
Game 3 – Kings at Sharks: Sharks ML (WIN), Under 5 goals (WIN)

Game 2 – Rangers at Bruins: Bruins ML (WIN)
Game 3 – Penguins at Senators: Penguins ML (LOSS), Under 5 goals (WIN)

5/27 – 2-2
Game 6 – Blackhawks at Red Wings: Blackhawks PL (LOSS), Under 5 goals (LOSS)
Game 7 – Sharks at Kings: Kings ML (WIN), Under 4.5 goals (WIN)

Total: 9-5-2, I also had the Penguins ML in game 4, the Penguins PL in game 5, the Kings ML in game 5 and the Sharks ML in game 6, which all won. Since I didn’t write about it I won’t count it, but I was preaching home ice and the Pens’ domination of the Senators on my twitter page.

Eastern Conference Finals – Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Series Prices: Bruins +170 – Penguins -200

Everyone is expecting Pittsburgh to run Boston out of the building in 5 games, and the odds reflect it. I’d find it very hard to lay 2/1 even with how good Pittsburgh has played. This series should go 7 games. When the Bruins have lost a playoff series under Claude Julien, it has always been in a game 7. Game 7, you throw all the numbers out the window. I think there is value in Boston +170, but I would not go nuts. Pittsburgh is the favorite for a reason, and I will not be betting the series price at all.

I believe the Bruins’ defense is better than the Senators, even if the regular season stats say otherwise. Tuukka Rask will not be letting up 6 goals in a game. As hot as the Penguins’ offense was against Ottawa, they ran up the score in games 4 and 5. Yes, every goal counts, and that 4.27 goals per game average isn’t a fluke, but this will still be the best all-around team the Penguins have faced so far. On the other side, the leading scorer in the playoffs so far isn’t Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang or even Sidney Crosby. In fact, it’s David Krejci, with 17 points. Beyond Krejci, the B’s have Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, hell, even Torey Krug. They’re all capable of putting the puck in the net. This is not as lopsided of a matchup as you may think. The Penguins have more skilled scorers; the Bruins have more players who can score.

The X-factor for me in this series is the Penguins’ goaltending. Tomas Vokoun has played very well, and Marc-Andre Fleury has not seen the ice since May 7th when he allowed 6 goals to the Islanders. Vokoun sports a 6-1-1 record with a .941 save percentage and a 1.85 GAA. However, I think that is more a function of the Pittsburgh defense and the fact that the best scorers Ottawa had out there were 40-year old Daniel Alfreddsson and Kyle Turris. This will be a challenge for Vokoun, just as much as the Pens’ offense will be a challenge for Tuukka Rask. We all know the Pens will come out firing, but I’m not sure people realize the Bruins averaged 37 shots per game against the shot-blocking Rangers. They are not afraid to shoot. If Vokoun can hold the Bruins under 3 goals a game, Pittsburgh will win.

As far as extra-curriculars, where do I start? Jarome Iginla coming to Boston after using his no-move clause to play in Pittsburgh instead, looking for his first Cup. Matt Cooke, the man who ended Marc Savard’s career 3 years ago. Jaromir Jagr, decorated former Penguin who scored over 1,000 points in 11 seasons, now looking for his third Cup. These two teams hate each other. These fanbases hate each other. This is going to be very, very good hockey. Without getting too deep into the numbers, this Penguins team has nearly identical stats to the 2011 Vancouver Canucks who the Bruins beat in 7, mainly on the strength of Tim Thomas. We could see more of what we saw 2 years ago.

If you’re looking for a recommended bet in game 1, so am I. The o/u is 5.5 goals. I like the under at -115, which may sound insane for the two highest scoring teams in the playoffs. I think both defenses play well, and we could see a 3-2 OT win either way. I don’t like the puck line, I don’t think I can stomach betting against the best team in the league in game 1 of the Conference Finals on their home ice, and I don’t want to bet against my team either.

If you don’t have any dog in this fight, Penguins ML -190, under 5.5 goals -115. I may only be adding the under into a parlay with the West.

Western Conference Finals – Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Series Prices: Kings +135 – Blackhawks -155

The LA Kings have won exactly 1 of their last 12 games on the road, playoffs or otherwise, and that was in overtime. The Chicago Blackhawks have home-ice advantage in this series and just got done with a series in which they had to win 3 in a row, including game 6 in Detroit, in a season where they compiled a 18-4-2 road record. Take Chicago -155. I just can’t see LA winning in Chicago, and I think they run out of gas by game 6. I also think Chicago wins one in LA, but if we somehow get to game 7 in Chicago, LA isn’t winning that one.

On balance, these are the two best goaltenders left in the playoffs, both with GAA under 2, and absurdly high save percentages. Five goals or less were scored in 12 of the 14 second round games for the Kings and Blackhawks. Chicago scored 16, LA scored 14 goals last round, not exactly Pittsburgh Penguin-esque. The major difference, besides home ice, is Chicago’s scorers are better than LA’s. Sharp, Hossa, Kane and Toews are better than Richards, Carter and Kopitar. If it comes down to a scenario where someone needs to step up and bury the puck to take control of the series, I’m taking Chicago.

To summarize, I consider the team defenses and goaltending to be basically equal. I give the offensive edge to Chicago who also has home ice and stepped up huge in the end of the Detroit series. The only caveat here is Jonathan Quick. He has proven he can take it to another level, allowing 30 goals in 20 playoff games enroute to the Cup last year, and 20 goals in 13 playoff games this year. If he plays at 80% of that level in this series, he has the ability to steal a game for the Kings in dramatic fashion. If Quick somehow steals either game 1 or game 2 in Chicago, then I think this series flips dramatically. As it stands now I’m sticking to my guns and believing in the team that went undefeated for 24 games this year.

As far as tonight’s game 1, the over/under odds are a little daunting. Despite all the numbers I gave above, -150 on under 5 goals is steep. I think the number is either 4 or 5 and an empty-netter either way could be bankroll disaster. Small play on the under and I think a push is very possible. I’m going to stick to the favorites winning tonight and go Chicago -170.

I’ll be taking a Blackhawks ML and under 5 parlay, possibly adding in the under 5.5 for BOS/PIT. Good luck to everyone, and I’ll check in as much as possible. Follow me @dividedsky05 if you want 140 characters of insight instead of 1,500 words.

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