The first round of the NHL playoffs concluded last night with three Game 7s. Before we dive into what’s ahead and look at the NHL Division Finals betting odds, I need to open by expressing my condolences to the fans of the San Jose Sharks.
San Jose had a 3-0 lead in games on the Los Angeles Kings and was making goalie Jonathan Quick look absolutely helpless. A team led by veteran Joe Thornton at center, along with players like Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture looked ready to start the process of exorcising some of their past playoff demons—they’ve never made the Stanley Cup Finals.
One of the reasons I was optimistic about their chances—and indeed picked them to advance out of the Western Conference, was the presence of goaltender Antti Niemi, who had been in net for the Chicago Blackhawks when the won the 2010 Stanley Cup.
As it turned, Niemi woke up the wrong ghosts of 2010. That same year, the Boston Bruins had a 3-0 series lead on the Philadelphia Flyers and the Bruins lost four straight. The Sharks suffered the same fate, losing 5-1 last night in Game 7. Niemi is the reason why.
To be fair, two of last night’s goals were empty-netters, after San Jose pulled Niemi with 2:50 to go. But there’s still the three goals he gave up prior. There’s still the fact that throughout the final four games, Niemi allowed the Los Angeles Kings’ offense to resemble the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A good goalie should be able to put a team on his back at least one time in four tries. Niemi not only didn’t do that, he became a complete liability.
I’m a Bruins fan and I remember all too well how it felt after they lost four straight to the Flyers—and to make matters worse, the B’s had a 3-0 lead within Game 7 itself and gave up four straight goals. Those distinctions won’t matter much in San Jose though, and the result is that it becomes tough to really enjoy the ensuing regular season, because all you want to do is get back to the playoffs and get the monkey off your back.
The Boston story had a happy ending—one year later, they swept Philadelphia en route to the Stanley Cup. I like this San Jose Sharks team and wish them the best going forward. For the fans though, it’s times like this that make you glad the NHL has a short offseason.
San Jose was one of three higher seeds to lose in the first round, the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues being the other. The Avs had a 4-3 lead late in Game 7 against the Minnesota Wild, but coughed up a late goal and then lost in overtime. A great job by new head coach and franchise legend Patrick Roy in turning the team around had a disappointing ending, but you get the feeling it’s just the start of a new era in Denver.
Now, on with what’s ahead in the second round. Here are the NHL Division Finals betting odds, as expressed in $100 increments, and followed by a brief comment.
Boston (-280) Montreal (+215): It’s a battle of big-time goalies with Boston’s Tuuka Raask and Montreal’s Carey Price. Raask was by far superior in the first round of the playoffs, and the Bruins have the better talent between the nets. But Boston can’t be outskated the way they were against the Detroit Red Wings, where Raask had to bail them out far too often. The hockey equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees should be heated.
Pittsburgh (-155) NY Rangers (+125): I was impressed by the way the Penguins attacked Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner (the goalie equivalent of the Cy Young Award). They face a similar challenge against New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. But I was not impressed with how it took the Rangers to win a series against a mediocre Flyer team, going the full seven. I like Pittsburgh at this modest betting price.
Chicago (-340) Minnesota (+260): Chicago’s the biggest favorite in this round and it’s easy to understand why. Any series in the NHL can be competitive and go at least six games, so that wouldn’t shock me. But a Minnesota series victory would be a monumental upset.
Anaheim (-105) LA Kings (-125): The battle of SoCal, between two teams that have won Stanley Cups within the last decade, Anaheim in 2007 and Los Angeles in 2012. I liked the way Anaheim played in the first round—they found the right balance of getting steady contributions from their stars, Ryan Getzlaff and Corey Perry, while not becoming overly dependent.
TheSportsNotebook is riding with the favorites, projecting conference finals of Boston-Pittsburgh and Chicago-Anaheim. It is worth noting that have the possibility of rematches of last year’s conference finals still on the table. In a league where parity and upsets run rampant, the chance of Bruins-Penguins and Blackhawks-Kings doing it again at the same round is very much alive.