After a busy Thursday night the NHL returns with just three games on the docket in preparation for a big weekend but all three games carry serious playoff implications for each team. Remember, with the moneyline, spread, and total all available in NHL action theres no shortage of opportunities to make your money work a little harder for you.
There’s also an enormous matchup that will take most of the attention on Friday in the Metropolitan Division. Two teams trying to assert their dominance over the rest of the conference meet on the ice tonight in a huge game and that’s where we’ll start our preview. Let’s get to it!
Pittsburgh Penguins (+1.5)
Columbus Blue Jackets (-1.5)
Total: 6(-115u, -115o)
Penguins (-105) at Columbus (-125)
The Penguins and Blue Jackets have been jockeying for position in the Metropolitan division all season long, but now that the Rangers are hot on both their heels the wins become a little more important, especially when they play one another. Pittsburgh enters the game with a 35-13-7 record while Columbus responds with a 36-15-5 record of their own. Any way you slice it both teams have 77 points.
The Jackets are coming off a win as well after they handed the Leafs a 5-2 loss but are still just 4-5-1 in their last ten games. They’ve started to regress back to the norm after their dominating 16 game win streak earlier in the season and that’s bad news for a team that wants to enter the playoffs on a hot streak.
Pittsburgh is already the best offensive team in the NHL, averaging 3.58 goals a game to sit first in that department, and they just got another boost. Evgeni Malkin rejoined the team after sitting out since January 24th and lit up the Canucks for a goal and an assist in his return. He now has seven points over his last five games, disclosing whatever he’s capable of getting done against Winnipeg’s weak defense and his 56 points in just 48 games were sorely missed by the Penguins over the last three weeks.
Now that he’s back the terrifying combination of him, Phil Kessel and of course, Sidney Crosby are reunited and that means trouble for all the other teams in the NHL, including Columbus. Even without Malkin the Penguins have scored under three goals just twice in their last ten games and are a sure bet to light the lamp almost every single night.
After playing Winnipeg the night before the offense will have to stay sharp against Columbus. The Blue Jackets can put the puck in the back of the net as well and are currently averaging 3.25 goals a game to sit 5th in the NHL. Their once near impossible to stop power play has come down to earth a bit, but still ranks third in the NHL with a 22.78 percent success rate. They don’t fire as many shots on net as the Penguins do, but their chances are still usually of high quality and they can get past anyone at any moment.
They’re also coming off a big five goal performance against the Leafs and their team needed it after three straight games of two goals or less including a shutout at the hands of the Canucks. Cam Atkinson is still struggling for his standards with just two points in his last five games and again failed to reach the scoresheet against Toronto even though his team scored five goals. With 49 points in 56 games, this season he’s due to break out at any moment but Columbus hopes it happens sooner than later.
The rest of the scoring against the Leafs was all fairly balanced and that remains the Jackets’ biggest strength. With so many players on their roster that can create offense and help put up goals, there’s never an easy answer for who to try and stop or focus in on.
Trying to stop the Jackets will be exactly what Pittsburgh’s defense needs to do, and they haven’t been very good at that in general this season. The Penguins allow 2.82 goals per game which ranks 14th while they also rank 25th shots allowed and have the 24th worst penalty kill unit in all of hockey.
Because they score so many goals the defense is hardly talked about, but when you’re playing against a team that can score as easily as the Blue Jackets it can quickly become a major problem. Justin Schultz is doing all he can for Pittsburgh on that end and is having a career year doing it. His +31 plus/minus rating is among the league leaders and leads the team easily. Despite playing rock-solid defense he’s also chipped in with 39 points on the year and continues to be underrated on the blue line for Pittsburgh.
In Columbus the Jackets know how to play defense. They allow just 2.46 goals a game which ranks 4th in the NHL. They also allow the 13th fewest shots and have the 11th best penalty kill so all in all this defensive unit is a well-rounded bunch. The Jackets would be nowhere without one player in particular along the blue line.
Despite being a rookie, Zach Werenski has been instrumental to the Jackets’ success this season. At the age of 19 he has a plus/minus rating of +14 to go along with 33 points all while averaging over 21 minutes of ice time each game. He has provided the Blue Jackets with a top line defenseman not just this year, bot for the foreseeable future and will have a huge challenged when he attempts to shut down Crosby and the rest of the high flying Penguins.
The Jackets’ defense can’t give all their credit to Werenski though with such an equally if not more deserving player standing right between the pipes. Sergei Bobrovsky has been magnificent for the Jackets this season and is firmly in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy given to the league’s top goaltender.
His play has fallen off a bit in the last six weeks but he still owns a 30-12-3 record to go along with a 2.19 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. He may be experiencing some fatigue with all the work that he’s been given but after a night off against the Leafs he should be in his best form to take on the Penguins.
Pittsburgh is no stranger to good goaltending either despite the poor defense numbers. It’s been a weird year for Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury but with Murray healthy things have finally settled down and Murray is the clear number one goalie. He stopped all 29 shots he faced against the Canucks on Tuesday and he may be given the night off against the Jets so that he’s well-rested for Columbus. If that’s the case the Jackets are in trouble. He owns a 2.27 goals against average with a .926 save percentage.
Cam Atkinson against Sidney Crosby. Atkinson has been cold of late but is no stranger to some clutch goals. He’ll need to hope he can get by Sid the Kid and his entourage though. Crosby is chasing down Connor McDavid for the lead league in points and plays some damn good defense while he’s at it.
The Penguins may be gassed after playing the night before and the Jackets are getting decent odds at home on the moneyline. Take Columbus to win, but not on the spread in what should be a close game.
Colorado Avalanche (+1.5)
Carolina Hurricanes (-1.5)
Total: 5.5(+105u, -135o)
Avalanche (+200) at Carolina (-250)
Well Carolina can count their lucky stars that they get to return from their league-mandated week off to play at home against the Avalanche. The Hurricanes have struggled as of late with two straight losses and are now just 3-7-0 in their last ten games. Thanks to their 17-6-1 record at home they’re still just eight points out of a playoff spot but that number will continue to grow as the losses pile up.
They can get back into the win column easily when they play a tired and broken Colorado team. The Avalanche are just 15-37-2 this season and have to play against the Sabres the night before on the road. Colorado is just 2-8-0 in their last ten games and had lost four straight heading into their matchup before taking on the Hurricanes.
The Avs have their goal differential all the way down to -75 and simply can’t figure out a way to stop anyone, or score on anyone. With trade rumors surrounding Matt Duchene heating up there’s even more distractions surrounding a team that needs none. Now they need to try and beat one of the best home teams in the NHL on the road. Yikes.
The Canes will hope Sebastian Aho can continue his excellent rookie season. The 19 year old is up to 32 points in 53 games this season and coming off a game in which he scored against the Stars. He now has six points in his last five games and will be fresh and ready to go against the worst defense in the league after a night off.
Cam Ward against Calvin Pickard. Neither goalie is having a particularly impressive campaign this season but that hardly matters when we’re just considering one game. Ward has had a week off after being rolled over by the Stars. He gave up five goals on just 27 shots including two short handed goals. He now has just a .905 save percentage on the season but that may be enough to get it done against the Avs.
Colorado responds with Pickard who was thrust into the starting role after some injuries. He’s given up 11 goals in his last three games and now has a brutal 3.02 goals against average on the year.
Carolina is rested, playing at home, and taking on the worst team in the NHL playing their second game in as many nights. Take the Hurricanes on the spread.
Florida Panthers (+1.5)
Anaheim Ducks (-1.5)
Total: 5(-145u, +115o)
Avalanche (+120) at Carolina (-150)
Our last game of the night turns out to be a good one in a big East versus West showdown to end Friday night. The Panthers enter the game with two straight wins including a chilling overtime victory over the Sharks on the road and now turn their attention to Anaheim where the Ducks are coming off a win of their own. Anaheim shutout Minnesota 1-0 in one of their most impressive defensive efforts on the season and will hope that effort continues against the suddenly high-flying Panthers.
Florida has dropped 13 goals in their last TWO games! They scored six against the Sharks and seven against the Predators the game before and seem to be enjoying life with Johnathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov back in the lineup. Huberdeau has played in just four games this season thanks to an Achilles injury but has already racked up seven points and has scored a goal in three of those four games he’s been in. He dropped another goal and an assist on the Sharks and seems poised to bring this Panthers team into the postseason.
Barkov has done well with Huberdeau back in the lineup as well and now has six points in his last four games including three against the Sharks. He’s scored four goals during that span and him and Huberdeau are beginning to look like one of the most dangerous one-two punches in all of hockey.
They’ll have to be sharp against a Ducks team that just shut out the Wild. Anaheim has been inconsistent as of late but when their defense bands together they become one of the must intimating teams in the league. The Ducks believe that their forwards need to help out on the back check and that has been a huge recipe for their success this year. The top three leaders in plus/minus on the team are all forwards and Jakob Silfverberg has been particularly impressive this season with a rating of +13 to go along with 36 points.
Johnathan Huberdeau against Cam Fowler. Fowler is just 25 years old and already expected to be one of the Ducks’ most leaned-upon defensemen going forward. He is averaging an insane 24 minute and 50 seconds of ice time this season and is the primary person responsible for stopping the best player on the other team. That player for the Panthers right now is Huberdeau who has fresh legs and is eager to get his team into the postseason. With under 30 games left to play both skaters will be trying their hardest to put their team ahead.
Florida is on a roll right now and getting excellent odds on the road in Anaheim. They also won their last meeting 2-1 and as long as Huberdeau and Barkov are playing like this they’re hard to bet against. Take the Panthers on the spread.
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