Hockey writers – all sports writers, really – hunt for overarching narratives. They’re in for a hard time trying to recap this season’s pair of completed NHL playoff rounds, since Round 2 took on such a different vibe than Round 1 as early as the Game 2 schedule. 2023’s opening Stanley Cup round was marked by underdogs were so dangerous, it turned even spring’s #1 vs #8 matchups into slot machines as “if necessary” games became “necessary” games across the entire NHL. Round 2 has become a mirror image of Round 1’s outcomes, at least in the Eastern Conference, where lopsided bouts combined with a pair of short-order whippings to set up a well-rested Eastern final series.
WagerBop wondered why Switzerland has drawn many times shorter odds than comparable IIHF World Championship squads from Germany and Denmark in 2023. The odds on Switzerland now seem to have been inspired by a fascinating NHL-themed angle, as bookmakers trusted Carolina to defeat New Jersey, and allow the Devils’ sizable Swiss contingent to fly overseas with time to spare.
New Jersey did enjoy a brief flourish of offense in the conference semifinals, scoring 8 times in a Game 3 victory highlighted by budding NHL superstar Jack Hughes. But the blue-line corps faltered in form and intensity around GKs Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid, allowing Carolina to rack up goals on crowded-crease opportunities and take an insurmountable series lead. There is no harder team in the world against which to come back from a deficit than the Hurricanes, who held the Devils to 29 shots across 4 frames in last Thursday’s clincher.
Florida’s series win over Toronto felt slightly less inexorable, if only because Maple Leaf netminder Joseph Woll wouldn’t have been the first recent new face to step in between the pipes and carry the Original-Six club for 10+ games at a time. Toronto played far more disciplined hockey than New Jersey, and took the Florida Panthers to overtime in 2 heartbreaking losses. But the injury loss of goaltender Ilya Samsonov proved fatal for Toronto’s promising season. Woll stepped in and led an inspired Game 4 performance in Toronto’s only win of the series, but while the Panthers only scored 4 times in a single contest, it’s hard to prevail in a low-scoring series with only backup goaltending.
How does Las Vegas (the sportsbook hub, not 1/4 of the NHL’s final four fan base) view the upcoming conference semis? Well, we’d like to assume that Stanley Cup odds-makers at least watched Round 2. But nonetheless, they think the drama and anxiety of Round 1 is on its way back.
Carolina Hurricanes vs Florida Panthers: Series Prices and Game 1 Pick
The Carolina Hurricanes are FanDuel Sportsbook’s (-145) Series Price favorite over the Florida Panthers (+120) in the Eastern Finals, not the most exaggerated favorite’s odds given the opponents’ widely disparate regular-season records. Perhaps the first 2 rounds of this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs have taught bookmakers to look away from regular-season W/L marks when handicapping the NHL postseason. In addition, though, the Series Price odds may reflect just what a tight series is anticipated in the Eastern semifinals, compared to a relatively freewheeling Western Conference series. Remember that “correlated parlays” are often made illegal at sportsbooks when gamblers try to combine a total-goals water on the low side of an Over/Under market with a pick on the underdog to win. FanDuel’s Over/Under scoring prop offered on the entire Carolina vs Florida series is a stingy (34.5) total goals, which indicates that if the series goes 6 or 7 games as expected, bookmakers anticipate well under 6 goals-per-game scored between the ‘Canes and “Cats, and maybe less.
The Hurricanes and Panthers present a unique contrast in checking styles. Neither team’s tactics should be viewed as more effective than the other until the clubs have had a chance to fight-out at least a few playoff games. As the former NHL (and current Italy National Team) head coach Mike Keenan once put it, good hockey players can eat up an opponent any way they prefer to. A good coach’s primary job is to keep them from ever pushing away from the table. Carolina shuts down opposing teams the old-fashioned way, using excellent gap control, neutral-zone Xs and Os, and a grinding forecheck that wears down enemy forwards before they can even surmount the attack zone and try to solve Frederik Andersen. Florida, meanwhile, has become a sensation in the 2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the use of “stick-leading checks,” which often serve to chip the puck over the blue line and end an opposing possession, and sometimes to spark a counter-attacking rush, even if the Panthers’ skater wasn’t actively trying to intercept when making the play. The visual of a hockey team skating with sticks straight ahead, as if pushing 2-handed brooms across a department store, gives the ’23 Panthers a video game look when defending plays at the point or high-slot scrambles.
Make no mistake, though. Florida has proven far harder to score on than the AI players from “Blades of Steel.” Florida’s knack for knocking the puck to center ice and producing counter-chances can turn any opposing forward line into a double-edged sword, like when the Bruins out-shot the Panthers but lost 7-5 at home in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Carolina is also a (-140) moneyline favorite to win Game 1 on Thursday night. But while the Series Price odds and 7-game proposition wagers at FanDuel suggest a series full of goaltenders’ duels, the early consensus O/U handicap for Game 1 is a standard O/U (5.5) total goals, without an obnoxious price on the “Under.” Could it take a couple of games for Carolina to adjust to Florida, and learn how to attack over the blue line without leaving Game 1’s hosts vulnerable to odd-man rushes? Those making picks on FanDuel’s “”Under” odds might say that the ‘Canes could just as easily choose to dump-and-chase, a tactic that would make the Under (5.5) an even better cool-headed pick for Thursday’s opening faceoff.
WagerBop’s Game 1 Pick: Under (5.5) (+104)
Western Conference Final: Dallas Stars vs Vegas Golden Knights
The modernization of the National Hockey League is complete. The Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida Panthers (if the latter 2 teams picked a composite lineup, would it be the Carolina Panthers?) combine to form a final four that wasn’t a twinkle in anyone’s eye back in the late 20th century. While the Seattle Kraken have joined the Golden Knights of last decade and the Panthers of the mid-1990s as expansion-themed Stanley Cup bids that went awry in latter stages of the playoffs, the 2023 conference finals have a distinct theme of league expansion.
Funny enough, there’s a half-serious “bring back the Atlanta Thrashers” thread going around on social media. Atlanta would fit right in an NHL playoff field of nothing but recent, southern markets.
Bring back the Atlanta Thrashers. And give them the Atlanta United colors. pic.twitter.com/KADvKj3KIq
— 𝑺𝒄𝒐𝒕𝒕 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒂𝒔𝒊𝒌 🏈 (@CarasikS) April 1, 2023
As for sportsbook odds on the Vegas-Dallas conference final, the theme of “Round 2 was an anomaly” has been taken to more of an extreme. Neither the Stars or Golden Knights are expected to have an easy ride in the series, even though Vegas is coming off a easier 6-game battle with Edmonton. It’s rational enough on the surface to offer up 1-to-1 Series Price odds and just a (-125) moneyline (according to Bovada Sportsbook) on the host club in Sin City for Friday night’s Game 1.
With the Dallas Stars having started slowly in consecutive playoff series, there may be another “anomaly”-based angle leading sportsbooks to cast Friday’s opener as a toss-up. Vegas has utilized 5 goaltenders at various points in 2022-23, not exactly the kind of “long-term ace starter, cast of veteran backups” model that Stanley Cup pundits are used to seeing lift the grail. But it’s been injuries and circumstances, not incompetence, which has kept the Knights playing musical-goalies. Current netminder Adin Hill is a 27-year-old veteran who was good enough to post nearly 920% save percentages with the hapless Arizona Coyotes, and is now blossoming with a superior team. As the Game 6 hat trick scorer Jonathan Marchessault told ESPN after knocking out the Kraken, “It’s different when you find a team that has 2 really good goaltenders. We’ve got about 5 of them.”
If Dallas netminder Jake Oettinger is destined to take over another series, it might be later than sooner in the Western finals. Dallas isn’t a solid 1-to-1 pick as the more fatigued side in Game 1.
WagerBop’s Game 1 Pick: Vegas (-125)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.