The Stanley Cup playoffs begin on Wednesday, providing sports bettors and casual fans with an exciting brand of hockey for the next two months.
You can wager on each individual series on USRacing.com and I have two plays — both are slight favorites that should win handily.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay -150/ Detroit +130
Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Detroit Red Wings fan. They are lucky to be in the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season.
They had better enjoy being here, because they won’t be around long.
This should also be the swan song for Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, who is rumored to be retiring from the NHL and will possibly play in his native Russia next season.
Yes, Steven Stamkos is out, but the Lightning are expected to have forwards Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov, as well as defenseman Victor Hedman, back from various injuries to start the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Red Wings.
Detroit is relatively healthy (minus oft-injured, and should-retire Johan Franzen, as well as forward Drew Miller), but limped into the playoffs, going 5-5 in its last ten regular season games — all under playoff-like urgency, as their postseason streak was on the line until the final game.
The Red Wings are appearing in their first Stanley Cup playoffs under coach Jeff Blashill. The same teams faced each other in last season’s playoffs, with Tampa Bay defeating Detroit 4-2.
This season, the teams split the season series 2-2, with the home team prevailing each time.
Detroit has an identity issue in goal, as goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard split time all season. Howard has been Blashill’s go-to man as of late and is expected to get the first crack against the Lightning, although Mrazek may be the better choice.
For the Lightning, it’s definitely Ben Bishop in net. He has been between the pipes for the lion’s share of the season and he won 35 games.
Neither team is scoring well as of late, but Tampa Bay had a +26 goal differential this season, as opposed to Detroit’s -13.
With the absence of Stamkos, who had a blood clot removed from his arm at the beginning of this month, Tampa Bay also finished the regular season 5-5 in their last ten games.
However, the Lightning were assured of making the playoffs and had the luxury of sitting players who may have played had the playoffs been in effect.
Look for the games to be tight, low-scoring affairs, but there’s no doubt that Tampa is the superior team.
Kucherov scored 30 goals this year (nine on the powerplay) and is expected to lead the Lightning attack against Detroit’s unspectacular defense.
I think the Lightning win the series 4-1, so laying -150 is a bargain.
Bolts in five.
New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
Florida -150/ Islanders +130
Staying in the Eastern Conference, as well as in the hotbed hockey state of Florida, is the series between the Islanders and Panthers.
Neither team has won a playoff series since the 1990’s.
It’s not often that you’ll find two teams that registered 100 or more points in a season faceoff in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that’s exactly what we have here.
Florida was the winner of the Atlantic division by tallying 103 points (47-26, 6 OTL, 3 SOL). That pits them against the wildcard Islanders who accumulated 100 points (45-27, 5 OTL, 5 SOL).
Even though the teams have very similar records, they are facing each other with one team relatively healthy, and the other, not so much.
Florida has the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and a much younger 38-year-old goaltender in Roberto Luongo. They beat the Islanders in two of the three games the teams played this regular season.
The Panthers have a top-threat scoring line led by Jagr (paired with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau), but are also balanced, having six players break the 50-point plateau this season — a franchise record.
Florida scored 36 more goals than their competition this season. The Islanders goal differential was +16.
The Islanders are suffering from the injury bug at the wrong time. Starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak will miss the entire series against the Panthers. And defensemen Brian Strait and Travis Hamonic are both questionable — at best — to start the quarterfinal series as well.
Forward Anders Lee is out after sustaining a fractured leg when struck with a teammate’s shot earlier this month and Mikhail Grabovski is out with a concussion.
The Islanders will have to turn to goalie Thomas Greiss, who has played in exactly one career playoff game.
New York’s John Tavares will be expected to carry the scoring burden and will be paired with Kyle Okposo, who recently left the team to attend to a personal matter.
This series smells like a Florida sweep. Should the Panthers win their two home games to start the series, it will be do or die for the Islanders in game three. I don’t see them having the ability to overcome the injuries and the inexperience in playoff goaltendending.
Again, laying -150 is no worry here, as the Panthers should easily prove to be the better team.
Cats in four.