Over the course of an 82-game regular season, we fans have to endure our share of ugly hockey sometimes. Even though the NHL breaks the schedule up a bit with the bye week as well as the all-star break that comes this weekend, players and teams inevitably wear down from the travel, the stretches of 4 games in 6 days and the tough defensive grind as games become more and more important for playoff positioning.
Every once in a while, however, the NHL throws us a bone with a tremendous mid-season matchup. That’s what we’ve got tonight in Nashville as the Predators play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning in what could easily be a Stanley Cup final preview. The Lightning comes into this one with the best record in the entire NHL, while the Preds are hot on the heels of the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights (it still feels weird to type that) for the top spot in the Western Conference.
However, despite the quality of both teams in this matchup, oddsmakers priced this game as a bit of a mismatch. Nashville opened as a -140 favorite to take down the NHL’s best team, which seems like a lot when you notice the Penguins opened as just -150 favorites to beat Carolina at home tonight.
Why are the Predators favored in this price range (they had moved down to -133 at the time of writing), and is there value on the Lightning as a result? Let’s dig a bit deeper for our NHL pick of the week.
For the most part this season, Tampa Bay has toyed with the opposition. The Lightning is every bit as good as its 32-12-3 record suggests. The Bolts are first in the NHL in goals scored per game and third in goals against. They win at home (17-5-1) and on the road (15-7-2). Even in a conference that features the hard-charging Boston Bruins (points in 16 straight going into tonight’s game in New Jersey), the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, the Lightning is clearly the class of the East.
But even the best teams will go through stretches when things don’t come easy, and that’s what Tampa Bay is experiencing right now. Part of it might be the injury to Norris Trophy candidate defenceman Victor Hedman, but the Lightning comes into this game with 5 losses in its last 8 games. Tampa Bay has allowed at least 4 goals in 5 of its last 7 outings, and the offense has also dried up, potting just 6 goals in its last 4.
I’m not convinced that a 2-0 win last night in Chicago means the Lightning is back on track. Beating the Blackhawks these days doesn’t quite mean what it used to, and Tampa Bay relied heavily on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy as it nursed a 1-0 lead into the dying minutes. Even the Lightning’s first goal came on a broken play, as Chris Kunitz tucked in the rebound of an errant shot off the end boards, and snipers Steven Stamkos (9 games without a goal) and Nikita Kucherov (5 games) were essentially invisible all night. Offensively, Tampa Bay is not playing with a lot of confidence at the moment.
I don’t see the Lightning breaking out of that offensive funk against the Predators, especially in Nashville. The Preds have locked things down in their own end of late, allowing more than 3 goals in a game just once in the past month. Netminder Pekka Rinne is 14-5-1 in his last 20 starts and has boasted a save percentage over .920 since the start of November. Since defenseman Ryan Ellis rejoined the lineup after missing the first few months due to injury, the Preds are 5-1-1.
Tampa Bay’s chances at a victory here look largely dependent on whether the Lightning can hold the Predators offense down as well. And although Nashville hasn’t been on a scoring barrage lately either, the Preds have the type of high-energy, relentless attack that should give a thin Tampa Bay blueline some trouble, especially on the second night of a back-to-back for the Lightning. I’m also expecting we’ll see Louis Domingue in net for the Lightning, who is a backup for a reason (1-6 record, 4.02 goals-against average, .870 save percentage.) Even if Vasilevskiy plays, it’s statistically proven that goalies are not as sharp when playing for the second straight night, and he’ll likely be drained by a 40-save effort last night in Chicago.
I think part of the reason we saw such a gutsy effort out of the Lightning last night against the Blackhawks (I watched a lot of that game, and Tampa Bay’s defensive effort and intensity was impressive) was because they knew they’d have their hands full the next night in Nashville. The Bolts have had their issues over the years in the Music City, losing their last 5 visits, and the Preds have won 6 of the last 7 meetings overall. Home teams have also dominated this series of late, claiming 7 of the last 9.
A rested Nashville team gets the job done tonight at home against a tired opponent that isn’t just playing for the second straight night, but also its 3rd in 4 days and 4th in 6. Although the -133 odds may look a little steep, we’re actually getting a bargain because of the respect bettors understandably have for Tampa Bay this season.
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