Sin City’s old hands like to say that line-forecasting lets gamblers overcome the bookmaker’s psychological edge when new odds are released. It’s true that the odds themselves lead to a lot of lopsided analysis as people try to figure out why a favorite is favored, instead of asking if they should be. If you’re looking at international sports odds and Sweden is a 2-to-1 underdog against little Romania, there’s a tendency to ask “what’s wrong with Sweden?” Maybe the line is simply a gift from a sloppy odds-maker, but you’d never learn that by starting out with the POV that bookmakers must always know best.
But line-forecasting can cause an confidence crisis too. What occurs when a line-forecast is so off the mark from Las Vegas consensus that it seems almost obvious that you made the mistake in analysis, and not the sportsbooks? Could it be that we’re just deluding ourselves next to the awesome power of computers and statistics? Or can the microscopic view of Vegas professionals cause occasional blind-spots that the observer can see right through?
WagerBop would have been hard-pressed to suggest a 1-to-1.5 favorites’ line on either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Colorado Avalanche to lift hardware in the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals. There’s a case to be made for either club’s chances from a here-and-now and a historical perspective. Colorado’s ongoing run to Lord Stanley’s doorstep has a similar “inevitable” feel as the franchise’s most-recent Stanley Cup title, circa 25 years ago when Ray Bourque skated for the Avalanche. (As said by Cam Neely on a TV commercial at the time, “Remember, kids, if you don’t have a Ray Bourque, just use whatever you have around the house.”) But on the flip side, Tampa Bay has won 2 NHL championships in a row, and looks an awful lot more like a dynasty than Colorado of the 1990s and other 1-off winners.
NHL odds-makers aren’t moved by Tampa Bay’s quest to 3-peat, nor by the seemingly even match-up of great snipers in 2022’s final series. Colorado has been cast as a (-190) favorite to win Lord Stanley’s Grail at FanDuel, a line shared by MGM and BetNow, if displayed as “futures” and not a “playoff series winner” market as of the Stanley Cup Finals. Bovada’s series price (an actual series-price despite being identical to Stanley Cup futures with 2 franchises left) of (-165) on Colorado tempers the trend just a little.
Still, those are heady odds for the Colorado Avalanche, who may have swept 2 separate opponents in the Western Conference playoffs, but aren’t necessarily a far fresher team than the Lightning. Tampa’s cool-headed style saved the Bolts from undue fatigue against the high-paced New York Rangers, and it was the “youthful” Rangers who appeared tired next to the experienced defending champs in Games 5 and 6 of the most-recent Bolts triumph.
That’s just 1 of several overlooked angles going into what’s likely a much more-tightly matched Stanley Cup series than NHL bookmakers think. Before we get to our recommended wagers on Game 1 and the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals at large, though, here’s a brief recap and analysis of how the Lightning and Avalanche fought through to what should be an entertaining finale.
Colorado Avalanche vs Tampa Bay Lightning: Comparing Each Club’s Run to the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals
This year’s climactic NHL battle wasn’t supposed to be a study in contrasts. From a wide lens, there’s a lot of similarities between the 2 opponents. Comparing the relative merits of play-makers like Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and looking for either man’s superior production is a dead-end rabbit hole, even though Kucherov’s strange (and light) 2021-22 schedule-to-date negates the “fatigue” angle found at current betting boards even further. Tampa’s blue line, much like Colorado’s, is a physical, yet quiet engine that keeps a championship-level hockey club humming. While the Lightning’s odds to win the Eastern Conference have rarely been as optimistic as the Avs’ drawn betting lines on semifinal and Stanley Cup Final appearances, that’s been due in part to the perceived thinner field of the western NHL ranks, the angle which was vindicated when Nashville and Edmonton lost to Colorado in sweeps. Notably, bookmakers trusted Tampa Bay to win playoff games later on, even when the Lightning found trouble in a 2-2 deadlock with New York.
But the way Tampa Bay reached Game 1 in Denver this Wednesday couldn’t have stood in greater contrast to Colorado’s 4-game romp over the Oilers. Colorado simply out-skated a talented Edmonton Oilers team that found itself exhausted from the Battle of Alberta, a 5-game win over Calgary in the conference semifinals. Connor McDavid’s upstarts scored 6 goals in Game 1, but the Oilers were completely unable to stop the Pepsi Center’s host-favorites, falling 8-6 in an outcome that portended the whole series. The Avalanche benefited from more than just an overwhelming attack, out-goaltending the Oilers in spite of losing the resurgent starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper to injury early in the Western Conference finals.
Kuemper was supposed to out-play his counterpart, 40-year-old netminder Mike Smith of the Oilers. Kuemper departure might have left the crafty Smith to out-play Colorado backup Pavel Francouz in the remaining games. Yet in Game 3 on hostile Canadian ice, it was Francouz who stayed cool and collected once McDavid opened the scoring less than a minute into the 1st period. Smith played dreadful hockey in comparison to Francouz, giving up Colorado’s first goal on a red-line pass, lunging away from a Valeri Nichushkin snipe that would have been stopped by a goaltender at rest, and finally, allowing a soft winner from centerman J.T. Compher.
Meanwhile, the Lightning did not conquer New York (literally or metaphorically) by letting Steven Stamkos dance and prance in the offensive zone, surrounded by crease-crashing forwards and defensemen. Tampa Bay has not bothered to try to mount playoff goal production that rivals Colorado’s this cycle. In spite of the awesome career statistics of Kucherov and Stamkos, the Lightning have opted to utilize cautious game-plans against a Stanley Cup playoff field that’s been full of goals and highlights in 2022. Tampa Bay mustered only 26 shots against Igor Shesterkin on Thursday, less than 5 of which came before Ranger defenseman Ryan Lindgren staked the hosts to a noisy 1-0 advantage. But by the end of Thursday night, the Bolts had ended a long MSG winning streak with a 3-1 victory.
Stamkos’ winning goal in Saturday’s decisive Game 6 illustrated the poise of Tampa Bay’s decorated roster in addition to its explosiveness. The iconic forward may have gotten lucky to have the puck rebound off his leg and into the New York net, but it was his potent shot on the rush at point-blank range that caused Shesterkin to fumble the orb to begin with. Most of the NHL’s skaters would have stupidly kicked at the puck or crashed into the goaltender hoping for a sketchy goal, but Tampa’s captain went so far as to move his left arm and his hips out of Sherterkin’s way on the lightning-quick play, allowing Lady Fortune to grant the Bolts a truly stunning goal-ahead tally.
Tampa’s stifling neutral-zone tactics are a genuine antidote to the NHL’s trend of potent offense, a label that was erroneously given to Carolina earlier in the 2021-22 postseason. Any hockey team can devise a system to keep opponents off the scoreboard in most 5-on-5 scenarios, but it’s important to give a playoff rival something else to worry about. For instance, the 2021-22 Hurricanes were vulnerable to 4-on-3 rushes and loaded attacks due to failing to scare many opposing D-pairings on the rush. Tampa’s wing-lock system flourishes by forcing playoff opponents to constantly maintain gap control, and to forecheck with a maximum of 3 forwards, lest the Bolts score on a counter-rush against a fatigued unit. Since the experienced, talented Lightning are still able to whip up enough offense without using a full-throttle forecheck, Cooper’s tactics can give the Bolts advantages in all 3 zones.
Where on the ice do bookmakers expect the speedy Avalanche to cut through Tampa Bay’s careful plans, if not everywhere? Hopefully, not in the goal crease, where the Lightning look more stable at this point in time.
Predicting the Stanley Cup Finals: Series Price Odds and Best Pick
One can make an argument that Colorado’s breathtaking end-to-end rushes are scarier than anything Tampa does on the counter-attack from 100 feet out. There’s also an argument that the Avalanche are less banged-up than the Lightning overall, in addition to any fresh-legs advantage in Game 1 … even though key skater Nazim Kadri was ironically injured (along with Kuemper) after plowing into St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington and knocking the Blue Note’s starter out of the 2022 playoffs.
But it’s hard to forecast that Colorado will out-play Tampa in goal, especially given that Kuemper’s health status is still uncertain. Sunny optimism from the Avalanche camp should be taken with huge grains of salt. (If reports out of Denver indicate that the goalie is “recovering from a cold,” expect him to undertake a minimum of 3 surgeries in the 6 weeks to follow. That’s been the NHL’s postseason injury-report culture since the games took place outside.) Andrei Vasilevskiy is the ultimate foundation rock for Tampa Bay’s dynasty, and couldn’t have played much better against the Rangers, a team with as many swift attacking pieces as Colorado, if not the Avs’ maturity.
Parts of Tampa’s series-win over New York reminded of another Stanley Cup battle involving the Lightning, the 2004 “Clutch-and-Grab Era” battle with Calgary in the finals. That’s not because the Bolts were clutching and grabbing on Thursday and Saturday, no matter what Rangers fans might be prepared to claim. No one who has watched the Western Conference playoffs this year can say that referees aren’t letting players skate freely. Instead, the Lightning have settled upon a winning formula that’s more attuned to what Scotty Bowman did with the Detroit Red Wings.
When legendary snipers are motivated to buy-into a European style “wing lock” system, and consent to forechecking with 2 players at a time, the club’s resulting “boring” efficiency and competitive degree-of-difficulty can make opponents look very poor, like the Rangers did for much of last week.
NHL bookmakers can’t have their prevailing Western Conference handicap and eat it too. Either the Blues weren’t the only decent team Colorado had to play in the previous 3 rounds, or the Lightning have plowed through a much harder slate while looking just as impressive in their own way.
Speaking of St. Louis, it’s worth mentioning that Tampa Bay is still banging and crashing. With some body-checks on its shifts, as much, or more; than any superstar-studded team, with a staid positional system since perhaps the Dallas Stars of the Stanley Cup Finals under coach Ken Hitchcock. Nashville and Edmonton didn’t get the chance to wear Colorado down physically, while the Blues curiously chose not to, in favor of a neutral-zone clogging positional game-plan of their own against the Avalanche. In addition to the long-break blues that struck Tampa Bay against Florida in these playoffs, the Avs must be concerned that Tampa’s more physical checking game could become a drag on MacKinnon’s attack if the series goes 6 or 7 contests. Cooper is most likely very pleased that the Bolts haven’t had to pause for a week once again.
It’s another reason to favor the overwhelmingly generous Stanley Cup series-price odds on Tampa Bay, piled onto the obvious betting angles in goal and elsewhere as Vasilevskiy anchors a determined, dynastic squad.
WagerBop predicts a number of “weird” Stanley Cup Finals outcomes that national pundits “can’t figure out” and which Denver podcasters insinuate were fixed. Colorado will flail at the Tampa Bay net, only to fall tired for subsequent series and allow half-ice rushes that turn into trouble. That doesn’t mean the Avalanche can’t find ways to score, and even win, but the pre-series odds for 2022 are as erroneously slanted against the defending champs as they were against eventual winner St. Louis in 2019.
Tampa’s “happy to keep playing” characteristic makes the Lightning a better underdog pick-to-win for Game 1 than Game 2. Especially since 1.5-to-1 underdog odds won’t be found if the Bolts “surprise” on Wednesday.
Stanley Cup Finals Pick: Tampa Bay to Win Series (+155)
Goal Totals, Moneyline Odds, and Prop Bet Recommendations in Game 1
FanDuel Sportsbook’s (6) goal total for Game 1 at the Pepsi Center is a nod to Colorado’s home-ice advantage above all. Neutral-zone traps are vulnerable to opposing forechecking speed, power, and resiliency, qualities that the Avalanche have within the top-6 in addition to Denver’s checking lines. Homestanding ice is a great opportunity to smash a few boards, ramp up the noise level on and off the playing surface, and unnerve a cautious visitor.
Resultingly, the Avs’ money-line odds to win Game 1 are right around the same (-165) and (-170) odds that sportsbooks have mistakenly priced on Colorado winning the Stanley Cup, and the O/U line looks more like a “Colorado vs Edmonton” line than the 5-range Over/Under lines that were inspired by recent Eastern Conference playoff rounds. Until now, Tampa Bay’s neutral-zone trapping game had acted much like a “Baylor”-style basketball team’s strategy would work on Over/Under lines, causing bookies to rethink odds on “5.5” goals.
Colorado could certainly swarm Vasilevskiy’s net for half of the 1st period before Tampa Bay adjusts to the Avs’ speed and play designs. But the Avalanche could just as likely be rusty to start, making the low-side an excellent call at (-105) odds on Under (6) goals in Game 1. FanDuel’s “proposition” O/U market of Under (5.5) and (+120) odds could also be a valuable wager.
Nicholas Paul was all over the puck on some of his shifts in Game 6 against the Rangers, making Paul a solid prop bet at (+350) odds to score in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Kucherov is also a near 2-to-1 pick to score a goal, strangely for a player who’s most likely to collect a home-run pass (and score) on a breakaway if Colorado is too worried about gap control to mind the perimeter blue-line against Tampa Bay’s transition.
Game 1 Picks: Tampa Bay to Win (+150), Under (6) Total Goals, Nicholas Paul (+350) or Nikita Kucherov (+180) to score
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.