The most fascinating phenomenon in sports handicapping is easy to observe, and yet hard to describe with a catch-phrase. It has something to do with teams’ pregame introductions serving to erase a lot of nonsense, tomfoolery, and wasted time prior to the puck dropping…or any other variety of starting-gun ritual in a crucial contest.
Baylor vs Gonzaga for the 2021 NCAA hoops title was an “eraser” game. Pundits, prognosticators, and players piled pounds on ‘Zags to win a national championship before the season even began. When the Baylor Bears arrived in the Final Four playing a brand of basketball equal to Gonzaga’s, analysts forgot that Gonzaga’s short futures odds had been based partially on the Bulldogs’ easier path to Indianapolis. Once the surviving teams stepped onto the court for a final showdown, Gonzaga’s “(-4)” point spread might as well have represented 4 bookies who got fired. Sin City’s point spread was an absolutely meaningless number in the face of 2 world-class teams who were prepared to fight to the finish. It was patently obvious within the opening 3 minutes of the game.
The phenomenon came about again – series-style this time – when the Vegas Golden Knights met the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 Stanley Cup semifinals. Vegas was a massive 1-to-4 favorite to win the best-of-7 and a heavy favorite on moneylines early in the series, even though the Canadiens had earned a precious rest-week by clobbering Winnipeg while the Golden Knights labored to survive the West Division.
Montreal stepped on the ice at T-Mobile Arena, and later at Bell Centre, and all of the numbers were erased, obsolete, forgotten. Vegas supporters who crowed about VGK’s superior shot-totals in Games 1-2 began eating crow as the Canadiens played rope-a-dope and made transition plays to flummox the Knights’ defense corps and produce wide-open chances. Montreal’s veteran netminder Carey Price out-dueled not 1, but 2 Vegas Golden Knights goalies, and Cole Caufield emerged as the NHL’s new youthful hero as the Habs won the semifinal series in 6 games.
Could it be happening again with the Stanley Cup Finals? Tampa Bay Lightning odds to win the upcoming series and Lord Stanley’s grail are shorter than 1-to-2, similar to VGK’s line headed into the Montreal series. That’s despite major-scale uncertainty surrounding the health of Tampa’s best offensive player, and the Bolts needing a tense Game 7 victory over the New York Islanders, a team that was considered no genuine threat to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals as of a short time ago.
Tampa Bay has careened close to the brink of elimination vs multiple teams in the 2020-21 postseason, and fought back to eliminate the Florida Panthers in 6 games and the Isles in 7. There’s no doubt that the defending champs have earned the status of Stanley Cup Finals favorites.
That doesn’t necessarily mean NHL betting odds aren’t way too lopsided – again. Expecting a club to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and putting a 1/2.5 series price on the same outcome are 2 different gambits.
Predicting the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals: Montreal’s Counterattack vs Tampa’s Shut-Down Defense
Nikita Kucherov’s injury in Game 6 of the Lightning-Islanders series gave everybody a nice excuse to rant about NHL referees again, and Ray Ferraro got to make his annual plea for all brands of ice hockey to homogenize the rules. (If it’s so much easier to get injured in the “trash league” NHL than when skating for the pristine IIHF, why is it so hard to get NHLers lined up to play in an international event? NHL GMs think perfect health is an edge for players in salary negotiations – that’s all I can think of.)
Kucherov came back to play in Game 7, even managing 2 shots on goal in the rubber match. But the news cycle on Kucherov’s injury demonstrates how playoff narratives are slanted in favor of NHL teams who led in the standings and stats during the regular season.
The New York Islanders, a team known for its scoring struggles in early spring, played the media role of “heels” much like the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 playoffs. Tampa Bay had to be a better team than New York after racking-up all those points in the regular season, just as the Vegas Golden Knights had to be better than Montreal based on the Canadiens’ lack of regular-season success.
Yes, it’s true that the Lightning are coming off a Stanley Cup victory in 2020, but that’s not the reason behind 2021’s inflated odds on teams like the Bolts, Avalanche, and Golden Knights. Remember that Toronto and Edmonton were popular picks to reach the Stanley Cup Finals too.
If the Tampa Bay Lightning had finished the regular season in 4th place while the Islanders had reigned supreme in various statistical categories throughout 2020-21, the sports media would have been gearing-up its excuses for why the Isles lost unfairly in case of a Game 7 loss.
There will always be a tendency to overrate standings/stats and forget that Stanley Cup playoff hockey is its own competition with unique requirements for winners, just as Olympic pond shinny requires a separate set of skills as compared to the National Hockey League. For purposes of analysis, Tampa Bay and Montreal are no longer 36-17 and 24-21. The Montreal Canadiens are 12-5 in playoff games and the Tampa Bay Lightning are 12-6. Those are the important numbers.
Brayden Point and Kucherov combined for 6 points in Tampa’s “2-point conversion” 8-0 romp over New York in Game 5, arguably the biggest momentum swing in a long, grueling series. But it’s the Lightning’s newfound will to stop opposing snipers at any cost, led by 2-way defensemen like Erik Cernak, that earned the club 2 straight shut-outs when it was needed the most. Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevsky will make the leap from respected NHL champion to household name if the Russian ace backstops 1 more series-win for a 2nd-straight title.
However, the Bolts’ problems in the Stanley Cup Finals could be 2-fold. Unlike the Isles, the Habs are playing their best offense of the entire campaign at the very best time. Montreal’s form with the puck in possession may also turn out to be “sweep-proof” if the Lightning take an early series-lead and campaign on blowing the Canadiens away.
Stanley Cup Betting: Time to Wager on the Hab Nots?
As pointed out on this blogger’s recent NHL betting tutorial for FanDuel:
No Canadian club has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, a streak of futility spanning 4 decades. Montreal’s triumph over Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings wasn’t a foregone conclusion, as was the league’s title when the Canadiens led a pack of northern NHL clubs with a stranglehold on the game. Edmonton, Montreal, and Calgary combined to win every championship from 1984 to 1990, but the 1993 Habs winning their last battle marked the end of an era as high-budget American teams began to take over.
Is the syndrome getting worse? No one has placed a bet on a Canadian club in the final series since Vancouver fought eventual Cup-winner Boston in 2011. The periodic regular-season success of Toronto, Edmonton and other Canadian teams indicates that talent is not lacking on northern rosters. Instead, MVP-level goaltending and superior depth are the missing ingredients when playoff series become survival tests.
Look for the next Canadian club to reach the finals after a so-so regular season, not a President’s Cup, utilizing short-term momentum much like St. Louis in 2019.
That 3rd paragraph comes eerily close to describing the 2021 Montreal Canadiens. Bookmakers would caution that while the fresh, youthful legs of Cole Caufield and a few other Montreal stars are dominating headlines, the Habs’ playoff push has been buoyed by Stanley Cup veterans on the bottom-6 who will likely run out of gas in the final series.
Montreal was also aided in the semifinal by the Vegas Golden Knights’ poor management of the goaltending position. Robin Lehner is an excellent option in goal for an NHL playoff team, but to switch to Lehner in Game 5, immediately after Marc-Andre Fleury’s freak puck-handling mistake at the end of Game 4, gave the impression that the club was scapegoating Flower for the 2-2 series tie when it fact the mistake was an anomaly.
Flower is among the few living netminders who could have stopped Artturi Lehkonen’s winning shot in Game 6. It’s harder to do from the bench.
Still, the counterattacking style of Montreal’s offense sets up 2 key angles for the Stanley Cup Finals. If either goaltender has a better chance to get into a groove during the series, it’s Carey Price, who’ll see constant action in his own zone while Vasilievsky cools in the other crease. And since Montreal’s snipers can simply play on instinct and score with 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 rushes, the classic scenario in which an underdog team “squeezes” and misfires on shot after shot in the attack zone is not applicable to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals. Tampa Bay is the team on which snipers’ frustration could mount, unless strict penalty calls enable the Lightning to load-up the power play 4-5 times per contest.
Best Series Price Odds and Recommended Wagers
Montreal (+200) appears to have a “checklist” of attributes needed for a Canadian team (not just a “Canadiens” team) to finally break through and win a Stanley Cup Finals series. Goaltending is terrific, 4th-line work ethic and hard checking are ingrained in the club’s current identity, and fast snipers are learning playoff tricks from experienced ring-bearers.
The Canadiens are disadvantaged going into the series in 2 ways – the Tampa Bay power play could forge a series-lead before the officials step back and swallow their whistles in Games 4-5 as is customary, and the Lightning could also flourish in the back-and-forth style play that’s likely to result from Montreal’s aggressive counter-play on occasion. A series with a lot of goals will tend to favor the team with superior scoring depth.
Those factors aren’t enough to make Tampa Bay a genuine 1-to-2 favorite, since the specter of Bolts’ forward lines gnashing their shots (and their teeth) against Price’s pads for 5-7 games is looming too.
Over/Under lines are in focus with the high-side of O/U (5) in play for Monday night. Chaos could ensue until yet another pair of unfamiliar foes learn how to defend each other’s attacks.
But when it comes to the Series Price and moneyline bets for this week (and probably next week, given the slim chance of a Stanley Cup Finals sweep), the Montreal Canadiens are again much more dangerous than bookmakers believe – for a 4th consecutive round of the playoffs.
WagerBop’s 2021 Stanley Cup Finals Picks:
Montreal Canadiens Series Price (1-2 units)
Game 1 Over (5) Total Goals
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.