NHL Playoffs – End of Round 2, Round 3 preview

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I’ve made a lot of predictions and bets over the past few weeks, and I figure this is as good a time as any to assess where we’re at in the Stanley Cup playoffs, get in a few more bets in round 2, and look ahead (hopefully all the way to Thursday) at the Conference Finals.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators (Penguins Win 4-1)

No real surprises here. Pittsburgh’s offense is scary. They dispatched the gritty, hard-hitting Senators in five games, winning by an aggregate score of 22-11. Sidney Crosby finished the series with 4 goals and 2 assists, Evgeni Malkin with 2 goals and 3 assists, and Kris Letang with an absolutely insane 1 goal and 9 assists. Now, my columns are no place for the obvious. Those guys will put points up, no question. However, out of the 22 goals the Pens scored, 12 of them came in games 4 and 5 against Craig Anderson. The rest of the series was relatively close. Tomas Vokoun is playing well, stopping 159 of 170 shots, but he’ll be on the other side of the ice from a goalie that’s played just as well if not better, in Tuukka Rask. Pittsburgh will have to keep scoring at a torrid pace if they’re going to make short work of their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, detailed below.

Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers (Bruins Win 4-1)

I was very happily wrong on this one and I apologize if I cost anyone money predicting Rangers in 7 at even money. The Rangers quit on militant coach John Tortorella. Their power play was downright miserable at 12.5% (2/16), a stark contrast to the Penguins’ 24% (6/25). The Rangers just did not have enough firepower on offense, and Henrik Lundqvist, despite getting better as the series went on, was not enough. The Rangers stopped blocking shots and Lundqvist ended up facing way too many shots, never less than 32 in a game. You really need a perfect storm to win a series on the strength of your goalie, like the 2011 Boston Bruins.

Tuukka Rask was one of the reasons the Bruins won this series, stopping 147 of 157 shots, with 2 of his 10 allowed goals worthy of the Not-Top-Ten on Sportscenter, which shouldn’t happen again. Rask is the most consistent goaltender left in the playoffs, closely followed by Niemi and Quick in the west. The Bruins’ fourth line and young defensemen will also need to continue producing. Boston scored 18 goals in 5 games (3.6 G/gm) and the majority of them have come from guys like Torey Krug, Greg Campbell and Johnny Boychuk, probably unfamiliar to most outside of Boston. The Bruins have proved anyone on the ice can score, and they will have to if they’re to keep up with Pittsburgh.

Eastern Conference Finals – Bruins / Penguins

The series shouldn’t start until the west finals are decided, but my early prediction is 7 games with a bounce of the puck deciding it. More evenly matched than people think, the Bruins defensemen will have to withstand an onslaught from Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and of course, the man who spurned Boston for Pittsburgh mid-season, Jarome Iginla. Combined with Jaromir Jagr’s return to Pittsburgh and Matt Cooke return as long-time Boston villian, this should be a great series, with these teams meeting for the first time since 1992. Rask will need to be better than Vokoun, moreso than the Penguins offense is better than the Bruins’ offense. The X-factor that worries me, and a reason why this could end in game 6 in Boston, is the Penguins’ record at the TD Garden and the overall lack of importance of home ice. Pittsburgh has won their last 6 games in Boston, and 10 of their last 13.

Western Conference Semifinals – Blackhawks / Red Wings (Red Wings lead 3-2)

Well then. Color me surprised. I stopped betting on this series after my last article because it’s been all over the place. After a dominant game 1, Chicago’s offense went to sleep, scoring two goals in three games and going 0-9 on the Power Play in games 2 through 4. Not to discount the play of Jimmy Howard, who stopped 86 of 88 shots in those games and looked damn good in the process. With their backs against the wall, the Blackhawks got back to shooting early and often in game 5, putting 45 shots on Howard, with four goals, two of them on the Power Play. They looked a lot more like the team that went unbeaten in 24 games, forcing turnovers and being aggressive. The box score is the key to Chicago’s wins. In their two wins in games 1 and 5, Chicago outshot Detroit 87-47. Detroit’s a tough place to win, and I’m not about to give a confident prediction in this hot and cold Blackhawks team. I think Chicago keeps their momentum for at least one more game, and then honestly, flip a coin for game 7. If pushed, I think Chicago pulls it out in 7.

For the Memorial Day gamblers out there, every game in this series so far has had 5 goals or less. Accordingly, the under is -125 on 5dimes and -135 on Bovada. I think that’s as safe as you’ll get. I think Crawford has a good game tonight. If you like Chicago and can stomach a big underdog pick, take the puck line (CHI -1.5) at +230. Every game this series has been decided by more than one. All of that comes out to either a 2-0 or 3-1 Chicago win in Detroit.

Western Conference Semifinals – Kings / Sharks (Series Tied 3-3)

Ah ha! Now this one I nailed. Home ice. If you follow me on Twitter @dividedsky05, you know I’ve been preaching home ice every game of this series, and it’s been good to me and my money. You’d think the short flight up and down the Pacific coast wouldn’t have the same pronounced disadvantage as these teams flying all over the country to play teams like Chicago, Nashville, Columbus and St. Louis during the season.

Now it’s not like it’s been easy. Four one goal games means anyone living on the -1.5 puck line is probably hurting. Quick and Niemi have seen to it that each game will be close, allowing 9 and 11 goals respectively over 6 games. The under has been a phenomenal play in this series as well and I don’t think game 7 is when the scoring opens up. I think both teams’ Power Play have been aided by questionable calls and dumb mistakes. When looking at the Kopitar puck clear that led to a 5-on-3 last night and the miraculous regulation comeback from the Kings in game 2 thanks to a 5-on-3 from a delay of game call that never should’ve happened, neither of those things will happen in game 7. I think this game will closely resemble game 7 of the 2011 series between the Bruins and Lightning.

The early line on this game is Kings -150, which I will be taking despite the heavy odds. Staying away from the puck line as the Sharks +1.5 is -245, not worth a potential empty net heartbreaker. The o/u is set at 4.5, with +110 odds on the under. Take it.

Once the conference finals matchups are set, we’ll take a look at the final four teams and who’s got the best odds to win it all.

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