With the all-star break concluded, the push for the playoffs has officially begun for the NHL. This season we have seen the Boston Bruins make history as the second-quickest team to reach 30 wins in NHL history, and the fastest team to collect 80 points of all time. We have also seen underdog teams, including the Seattle Kraken and New Jersey Devils, accumulate more than 30 wins at the break. These two teams were definitely not expected to have the success they have found this season, and it shakes up their divisions that much more. Going into the season, the Columbus Blue Jackets could not have had higher hopes, as they brought in the biggest free agent on the market last season. However, this year has not gone as planned, and they may be the landing spot of Connor Bedard, the projected number one pick in the upcoming draft.
Looking ahead to next weekend’s matchups, we have another fantastic slate of games. Last weekend Gary Bettman did us well by having games from noon to midnight nonstop, which led to some action-packed betting. It almost reminds me of an NFL Sunday, one of those days where there isn’t much of getting up off the couch. Unfortunately, the lines are not yet out for Saturday, but there are many games to tune in for. In the first game of the day at 2 P.M., the St. Louis Blues hosted the Colorado Avalanche in a divisional game. The Avalanche will be favored, but not by much. The Avalanche lead the season series 2–1, this is the regular season finale for these clubs. Last year we saw the Avalanche put away the Blues in the postseason on a gut-wrenching, tie-breaking shot by Darren Helm with 5.6 seconds left in the game. Colorado then went on to win the cup over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but this season they have lost a bit of a step as they are on the outside looking in of a wildcard spot. The Blues are 10 points out of the wild card spot, needing a big push in the second half from their top guys. Their goaltending has struggled mightily this season with Binnington, their starter, posting just one game over .500 and averaging over 3.3 goals given up per game. Many Blues fans are not excited for the future as all-star caliber player Vladimir Tarasenko was just sent to the New York Rangers, and fans fear Ryan O’Reilly and his contract are next to go. These two players were crucial in their 2019 cup run, and the Blue Jackets are going to need someone like Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas to step up and lead this team next season. I’ve got Nathan MacKinnon leading the Avalanche to victory again in St. Louis in a high-scoring affair.
The next matchup circled on this Saturday’s slate is the Washington Capitals in Raleigh, NC to take on the Carolina Hurricanes in an outdoor game. Outdoor hockey is the best sport ever created, and every player gets excited for games like this, especially with playoff implications on the line. Both of these teams are expected to make the playoffs, but with the Devils playing spoiler in the Metropolitan division, the Capitals currently have the top wildcard spot by just a point, and the Hurricanes have a team on their heels. I anticipate the Hurricanes to be favored in this one, as they are the home team and are No. 2 in the whole league. The Hurricanes have not surrendered much weakness to anyone this season other than eight overtime/shootout losses. They average 3.3 goals a game and have an incomprehensible record at home this year at 17–6–2. This is a team that does not stop coming at you until they have won the game. Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who never want to go back to Carolina again after choking a two-goal lead with two minutes left. With all this being said you can’t count the Capitals out. Washington achieved something that not many teams have done this season, which is beat the Boston Bruins on home ice. This was one of the most gutsy games of the year for the Caps as goaltender Darcy Kuemper stood on his head to get his 16th win of the year. The Great 8, Alex Ovechkin, may get his 100th point against the Hurricanes on Saturday on an outdoor rink, but will the Caps be able to sustain a top five team in the league on the road?
The third and final matchup that cannot be overlooked on this slate is the nightcap in Vegas. The Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Tampa Bay Lightning are some of the most respected in their conferences because of their high pace of play and domination of team chemistry. The line in this game is going to be close to even odds and will be a toss-up. The only way you can predict this game is by goalie matchups and injuries. There is a strong chance that Andrei Vasilevskiy will start for the Bolts, and Adin Hill will be between the pipes for the Vegas Golden Knights because of the recent injury to all-star goaltender Logan Thompson. The Knights have played very well in front of Hill this season, he has given up just 2.5 goals per game, coming with a 12–5–1 record. Vegas is usually a good home team but this year they are just 14–13 in the fortress, while Tampa is just 12–11 on the road this season. Tampa is No. 2 in the league on the power play thanks to Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and captain Steven Stamkos. However, the Knights match up very well with a high-powering offense of their own which includes captain Mark Stone and newcomer Jack Eichel. The Vegas Golden Knights are known for their scoring and are going to have to find ways to beat Vasilevskiy several times if they want a shot at this one. The atmosphere is going to be excellent, with the home crowd exhilarated, but I’m taking Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning to edge out the Vegas Golden Knights.