Just a couple of months ago, a Pittsburgh/Vegas game would be a candidate for the biggest mismatch of the entire NHL season. After all, the Penguins are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, while the Golden Knights are just getting their feet wet as a first-year expansion team.
But here we are in mid-December, and this game is essentially priced as a pick ‘em. Why? Well, look at the standings today, and you’ll actually see those fledgling Golden Knights ahead of Pittsburgh. Vegas is threatening to be the first expansion team since the 1960s to make the Stanley Cup playoffs (back in those days, expansion teams had their own division, which explains how the St. Louis Blues got to the Cup final in their first three years of existence), currently ranking fifth in the Western Conference. Led by snipers William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal, the Knights clearly aren’t your typical expansion team.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Part of the Penguins’ slow start could be attributed to a Stanley Cup hangover, especially when it was their second straight. But I think a bigger part of it has been some goaltending issues, with the Pens struggling to get competent play from their backups when starter Matt Murray rested or missed time to injury.
Goaltending is without question the focus once again here tonight but for a good reason this time. Murray makes his return to the Pittsburgh crease tonight after missing the past five games due to injury, but his presence will be overshadowed by the man Vegas is starting in net.
Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, recently back from injury himself, is getting his first chance to play against the franchise that he spent the first 13 years of his career with and helped win three Stanley Cups. You know he’ll be out to prove to the Penguins that they shouldn’t have left him unexposed in the expansion draft after Fleury lost his starting job to Murray a couple of years ago.
What angle can we bettors capitalize on in this goaltending grudge match? Let’s dig a bit deeper into this matchup to find out.
The first thing that jumps out at me here in this contest is the disparity in home and away records. Vegas has been nearly unbeatable in its first season at its new home, winning 11 of 13 games there before suffering a shootout loss Tuesday against Carolina. Meanwhile, the Penguins are just 6-8-1-1 when playing away from the friendly confines of PPG Paints Arena (if there’s a worse name for a rink in the NHL, I haven’t heard it.)
But although Vegas’ home record suggests the Knights have been dominant on home ice, that’s not entirely true. Five of their last six games at T-Mobile Arena have gone to overtime or a shootout, as have eight of their 14 home contests on the year. A 7-1 record in OT on home ice doesn’t seem like the most sustainable trend, making me believe that we might actually get value fading the Knights at home in the near future.
Is Pittsburgh the team to capitalize on that? Ordinarily, I’d say yes. But the Penguins have been lacking a bit of late, losing three of their last four games (including a 2-1 loss at home to the Avalanche on Monday). In fact, their only victories over their last 10 games came against the Sabres (twice), a Flyers team that was in the middle of a 10-game losing streak, the Islanders (in overtime) and the Lightning (the lone impressive win of the bunch.)
Still, I’m leery of going against the Penguins at this short price, even with Fleury eager to settle a score with his old team. Pittsburgh is a veteran team that always seems to play better when the stakes are higher, and I can see the Penguins being pumped up to face their former goaltender. I’m also certain that the Pens won’t fall victim to the distractions of the bright lights of Vegas, which is one theory as to why road teams haven’t been able to beat the Knights this year.
Instead of taking a side in this game, I think the Over/Under is the better way to attack this game, because I see the potential for a lot of goals. Actually, you pretty much need to lean that way anytime you’re breaking down a Vegas game. The Knights are averaging 3.71 goals per game this season on home ice, and they’ve pumped 22 goals past opposing netminders in their past six games. And we know what the Penguins attack is always capable of, featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. They laid an egg last time out against Colorado, but I expect them to return to the form that saw the Pens score at least three goals in each of their previous eight games.
We’re getting no discount on the total here, with oddsmakers hanging a 6, but I think the high number is more than justified. As long as both teams put up three goals in this one, we’re guaranteed to cash a ticket, and I won’t be surprised to see either side light the lamp four or five times.
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