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Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins

The Bruins look to keep their season alive on home ice while the Blackhawks look to clinch the Stanley Cup title with a road win at the Garden. The Bruins are -126 favorites over the Blackhawks with an over/under goal total set at 4.5.
The Chicago Blackhawks find themselves in familiar territory up 3-2 in the Stanley Cup finals heading to the road as this was the same scenario a few seasons ago when they won their last Stanley Cup on the road in Philadelphia. The Blackhawks have won back to back contests and taken the series lead away from the Bruins who could be in tough as the status of Patrice Bergeron is up in the air after he left game five in an ambulance. After a game four victory in which they Hawks put six goals past Tuukka Rask they got back to form in game five with a hard fought, 3-1 victory that has to give the Hawks some momentum heading back to Boston for a huge game six show down. Jonathan Toews’ health is also a concern heading into this one as he was held out of the game for the duration of the third period after suffering a hard body check by Bruins defenseman Zach Boychuk. Either way you can expect another competitive contest between the league’s two best teams and we could very well see the Cup be presented this evening.
The Bruins dropped back to back contests for the first time since the opening round against the Maple Leafs when they dropped a pivotal 3-1 decision on Saturday night and they must rebound if they want to keep their Cup aspirations intact. The fact that Boston is still playing hockey is a miracle after they were down by three goals late in the decisive game seven against Toronto but since the epic comeback they have been rolling and until Saturday hadn’t lost two straight. To add injury to insult the Bruins could be without their best player in Patrice Bergeron who has done everything for the black and yellow and without his leadership and ability to dictate the game in all aspects of the game would be a huge loss in a very crucial point of the season. This has been a remarkable postseason and a great culminating series between two class organizations and while a deciding game seven in Chicago is more than a distinct possibility I really think Chicago has gained momentum here and even if Bergeron can go for the Bruins it is clear that he won’t be at 100%. With that in mind I like the Blackhawks here to finish the series and hoist another Stanley Cup in front of a hostile Bruins crowd.

Pick
Chicago Blackhawks +114 Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Stanley Cup Finals head back to the Windy City with the series knotted at 2-2. The Blackhawks are -150 favorites over the Bruins with an over/under goal total set at 5.
In a series that appears to be destined for seven games, Chicago tied the series 6-5 in overtime Wednesday to prevent Boston from taking a commanding 3-1 lead. In the highest scoring game of the series thus far, Brent Seabrook sent the Boston fans home with a grimace when he sent the game winner past Tuuka Rask with under ten minutes elapsed in theextra session.
In a series that was dominated by defense and brillient goal tending at times, this one was an old fashioned shootout with the Blackhawks blitzing Rask with 47 shots, while the Bruins sent 33 shots at Corey Crawford. The vaunted penalty kill of the Bruins was finally beaten by Patrick Sharp, while Marcus Kruger, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Michal Handzus each finding the back of the net.
For the Bruins, Patrice Bergeron paced the offense with a pair of tallies, with Johnny Boychuk, Milan Lucic and Rich Peverley lighting the lamp. The Bruins let a golden opportunity to take control of this series although Chicago had plenty to do with that as they never trailed in an up and down show that fans of offensive hockey had to enjoy. What can we expect in game six? Probably another tight one as these teams appear to be evenly matched.
In my view, I think another shootout would favor the Blackhawks who are probably the faster and deeper team. That means Boston would be best served by a low scoring, grind it out affair. Chicago is a solid defensive team as well so they can win iin any number of ways which is why they are favored to win this series. I think taking big faves between teams so closely matched is not ideal so for me it’s the plus money.

Pick
Boston Bruins +140 Chicago Blackhawks

Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Bruins and Blackhawks meet in Game 3 on Monday night. The Bruins are -126 favorites over the Blackhawks with an over/under goal total set at 5.
It was another game where nothing came easy for either side but you’d have to imagine that Corey Crawford would like that last shot back. Crawford was beaten from the top of the slot on a shot from Daniel Paille that lifted the Bruins to a 2-1 victory and evened this best-of-seven series at a game apiece. Chris Kelly’s first goal of the playoffs came in the second period and evened the score at 1-1 after Patrick Sharp had given Chicago a 1-0 first period lead with his ninth. This game was all about Tuukka Rask keeping the Bruins in it after they were absolutely manhandled in the opening period. Chicago outshot Boston 19-4 in the first period and out attempted them 30-5 over the first 20 minutes. Rask surrendered the one goal to Sharp off a scramble in front but the Blackhawks could have easily had three or four goals in the period. To Boston’s credit they were able to regroup during the first intermission and came out looking like a different team the rest of the way. Each team failed with the man advantage and so far this series has played out pretty much like anyone would have expected.
These are two evenly matched clubs that really struggle on the power play but have great penalty kills and play excellent hockey five-on-five. Boston now has home ice advantage in their hands but they need to take Game 3 in order to make that to stand up. This one has all the makings of a series going the distance.

Pick
Boston Bruins -126 Chicago Blackhawks

Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks look to eliminate the Los Angeles Kings Saturday in game five. The Blackhawks are -173 favorites over the Kings.
The Blackhawks took a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Kings on a 3-2 victory at the Staples Center. With the win, Chicago improved to 3-4 on the road and handed Los Angeles their first defeat on home ice during the postseason. Marian Hossa netted the winner just 1:10 in to the third period and the Hawks defense stifled the Kings attack which managed a mere two shots on goal over the final 20 minutes. The special teams continued their shutdown play by killing their 54th short handed situation in 56 tries. Patrick Kane also lit the lamp, while Bryan Bickell scored and handed out an assist. Corey Crawford stopped 19 shots to pick up the win and put his team on the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals.
With the mystique of the home ice gone, Los Angeles faces a must win scenario when they travel to Chicago for game five. The Kings led early when Kyle Clifford took the puck from behind the net and fed Slava Voynov in the slot who rifled the disc past Crawford. Los Angeles took the lead again in the second when Dustin Penner knocked in a puck that Jeff Carter shoved towards the front of the net. The LAK missed out on a golden opportunity just a few minutes later when Justin Williams got loose on a breakaway but lost control on a poke check from Crawford. Jonathan Quick made 25 saves in the defeat in a game that will be best remembered for the Kings offense unable to get but two shots on goal and were unable to take advantage of the suspension to defenseman Duncan Keith.
I think the Kings might have flown under the radar a bit when they captured the Stanley Cup a year ago, but they have the full attention of Chicago who is simply playing well. I always say that trends at this point of the season don’t matter as much to me as momentum does and the Blackhawks seem to have plenty of steam right now.

Chicago Blackhawks -173 Los Angeles Kings

Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Boston Bruins shoot for the sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bruins are -124 favorites over the Penguins with an over/under goal total set at 5.5.
The Bruins have taken a 3-0 series lead over Pittsburgh thanks to a 2-1, double overtime victory in game three. Patrice Bergeron deflected a shot/pass from Brad Marchand with 4:41 left in the second extra session. The Bruins received a goal from David Krejci and Tuuka Rask stopped an amazing 53 shots to pick up the win. The Bruins are now in the driver’s seat with a huge series lead and have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals with a win at TD Garden on Friday. If so, Boston will move to the finals for the second time in three years when they hoisted the cup two years ago. Boston also swept the Penguins in 1979 but are sure to get the Penguins best shot Friday.
Pittsburgh had plenty of shots in game number three but obviously not enough goals which is always the bottom line. Chris Kunitz was the only Penguin to get the puck past Rusk in the second period as the Pens put 54 shots on the Boston net minder. Tomas Vokoun absorbed the defeat despite making 38 stops which was a marked improvement over game three. Vokoun didn’t last long in a 6-1 loss to the Bruins when he was yanked after allowing three goals on just 12 shots. However, it didn’t matter because the Pittsburgh offense is obviously not scoring goals which leaves Vokoun and the rest of the Pens defense with virtually no room for error. He did keep his team alive when he stopped Nathan Horton on a breakaway in OT and escaped when the crossbar saved him when Horton missed out again.
Horton missed out on a pair of golden opportunities that would have made this a different series. I don’t really think the trends matter all that much at this point because it’s do or die time for Pittsburgh. I’m sure the Penguins want to avoid the distinction of getting swept, but I’m also sure the Bruins don’t want this series going any further because anything can happen. I’m leaning on the Bruins to close this out if they can survive the Pens in the opening frame.

Pick
Boston Bruins -124 Pittsburgh Penguins

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Chicago Blackhawks look for a 3-0 series lead when they travel to Staples Center to take on the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. The Kings are -130 favorites over the Blackhawks with an over/under goal total set at 4.5.
Chicago looks like a hockey club that was given new life after rallying from 3-1 down in the second round against the Detroit Red Wings. The first two games of this series against the Kings we’ve seen the Chicago club that we saw throughout most of the year, outworking their opponents and using their speed to their advantage. Andrew Shaw converted just 1:56 into the opening period on Sunday night to put the Blackhawks in front and they would never look back. Brent Seabrook added his second goal of the post season in the final minute of the period, beating Jonathan Quick with one the Kings goalie would like to have back. Chicago then came up with two more goals as Bryan Bickell tallied one on the power play and Michal Handzus added a goal just over two minutes later. Los Angeles would get a late goal from Jeff Carter to make it 4-1 heading into the third, but they didn’t manage to get any closer until the final minute when Tyler Toffoli scored a meaningless goal. Chicago has been proving just how valuable depth is in order to win the Stanley Cup Finals in this day and age. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have just three goals between the two of them and 17 total points, but the Blackhawks are in great position to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Bickell is setting himself up for a nice payday in the summer, Patrick Sharp has been incredible throughout the post season, and you always have to know where Marian Hossa is on the ice. It’s a very difficult task to shut down the Blackhawks because of how many different players can hurt you. The Kings benefitted from this on their run to their first championship in franchise history last season, but through the first two games of this series they’ve been outplayed significantly. Quick was pulled after allowing four goals on just 17 shots through the first period and a half of the hockey game. Corey Crawford made 29 saves to record the victory.
This is a tough game to pick because it’s desperation time for Los Angeles but they’ve been outplayed for much of the first two games. The Kings are going to need Quick to find his game in a hurry otherwise this series is going to be much shorter than many people expected.

Pick
Los Angeles Kings -130 Chicago Blackhawks

Montreal Canadians

Losing in the playoffs at the hands of your archrival is always devastating for a team and its fan base. Blowing a 2-0 series lead while heading home to host games three and four pours some salt in the wound. Watching your rival not only come back to defeat you in that series, but go on and win the Stanley Cup? Let’s just say the scenario couldn’t have gotten much worse for the Montreal Canadiens.

Despite the tragic end to their season last year, the Canadiens proved that they had the ability to compete with the best teams in the game, and had a couple of bounces gone their way they might have even been the ones hoisting the Cup. The Canadiens come back mostly in tack from last year and as always, the fans in Montreal will be expecting big things.

Adding to their forward group in the offseason was a point of emphasis for general manager Pierre Gauthier. Montreal struggled to score goals last season, tallying only 213 goals on the year. They tied with Toronto, and finished better than only the Florida Panthers the dismal Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils. What the Canadiens really need is for current players to produce more, but the acquisition of Erik Cole should certainly help. Cole scored 26 goals last season and should fit right in on a team that loves to move the puck up the ice in transition as quickly as possible.

The Canadiens brought in former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Peter Budaj to help back up Carey Price. Price was sensational last season, finishing with 38 wins and really affirming himself as one of the top netminders in the league. Montreal will need another big year from Price, but having Budaj as a potential back up to spell him and in case of injury is just another layer of depth that good teams always seem to have.

One of the most important players heading into the season for the Canadiens has to center Scott Gomez. He’s been the talk to many trade rumors and no doubt there are plenty of fans who want him on the next bus out of town. Gomez was absolutely dreadful last season, finishing with career lows in goals and points, and his $7.5 million cap hit certainly doesn’t provide him room for any excuses. Gomez is at his best when he’s distributing the puck, so even if he scores only 12-15 goals, the Canadiens need him to near the 50 point mark this year.

Cole should help the offense a bit but this is still a team that might have trouble scoring consistently. P.K. Subban could take the next step to becoming an elite offensive defenseman this season, and with Andrei Markov returning the Canadiens have a capable defense in front of Price. If the offense improves and the Canadiens are able make the playoffs they should be able to make some noise.

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Carolina Hurricanes

Last season came down to 60 minutes of hockey for the Carolina Hurricanes. Eighty-one games had been previously played, and all that remained was one matchup with the rival Tampa Bay Lightning. Winning would mean the Hurricanes were in the playoffs, losing would mean they were going home. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, they trailed 3-0 just 13 minutes into the opening period. Carolina managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 in the third period but they couldn’t get any closer, and they watched their season come to a close with destiny in their own hands on home ice.

This season the Hurricanes expect nothing short of a playoff spot, and if they earn one in the tightly contested Eastern Conference they will most definitely deserve being there. Captain Eric Staal still leads the way for Carolina, compiling 33 goals and 76 points to lead the Hurricanes offensively. Sophomore Jeff Skinner will look to improve on his incredible rookie season as well. Skinner scored 31 goals and recorded 63 points, and if you watched him play last season you know he’s got all the talent in the world to surpass that this season.

On defense the always steady Cam Ward remains in goal for a seventh consecutive season. Ward posted 37 wins and 4 shutouts in 74 games last season for Carolina. It will be interesting to see if the addition of Brian Boucher will finally allow Ward to get some much needed rest during the year. The Hurricanes replaced the loss of Joe Corvo with Tomas Kaberle, and are hoping that the veteran Kaberle can assist the power play. Kaberle will be looked at to return to form after a sluggish playoff performance during the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup run last season.

The most devastating loss for Carolina was losing forward Erik Cole to the Montreal Canadiens in the offseason. The Hurricanes tried to retain Cole before the Canadiens were able to blow him out of the water with an $18 million contract. Cole scored 26 goals last season for Carolina and his speed was always a lethal weapon for a hockey club that loves to transition the puck up the ice quickly and generate short handed opportunities.

The Hurricanes countered the loss of Cole by acquiring forwards Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Anthony Stewart. Stewart could be one of the most underrated signings of the year if he takes another step forward after his 14 goals and 29 points in his first full National Hockey League season. Stewart is the type of player that should fit right into the way the Hurricanes play hockey, and that might mean big things for both parties.

It will be tough sledding for the Hurricanes all season long, having to fight off the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals within their division, not to mention the numerous other good hockey clubs in the East. If Boucher is capable of playing around 15 games and spelling Ward, the Hurricanes should have enough to be a playoff team this year.

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Colorado Avalanche

The biggest question facing the Colorado Avalanche heading into the 2011-12 NHL season is whether or not they can keep the puck out of the back of their net. The Avalanche allowed a league high 287 goals last season, 25 more than the next closest team. It’s not even close to being good enough if the Avalanche want to return to the post season or even be slightly competitive in the Western Conference this season.

Colorado attempted to address this starting last season when they acquired Erik Johnson from the St. Louis Blues, and their process continued at June’s NHL entry draft. The Avalanche used their first pick on winger Gabriel Landeskog, and then drafted defenseman Duncan Siemens. It remains to be seen whether or not either player will make a difference for this year’s club, but both have a chance to be in the NHL sooner rather than later based on the way Colorado played defense last season. The Avalanche also brought in veteran defenseman Jan Hejda to help support a still suspect defense corps.

Perhaps the most important move for the Avalanche in their quest to shore up their defense was the trade they made for Semyon Varlamov. Avalanche general manager Greg Sherman put all of his eggs in one basket, and Varlamov better produce the way Sherman expects. Colorado sent a first and second round pick to Washington for a goaltender that wasn’t even going to play for the Capitals after they acquired Tomas Vokoun. That first round pick could be costly if the Avalanche finish as one of the worst teams in the league for the second year in a row. If Varlamov turns into the elite goaltender Sherman thinks he can be, then the deal may very well be worth it for Colorado in the end, and may help put the Avs in contention this season. Varlamov has been extremely successful in his limited playing time as an NHL netminder. He’s posted a 30-13-12 record in 59 career games, along with a 2.39 goals against average and .917 save percentage.

The Avalanche have some solid young forward depth with Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, and Paul Stastny. They have veteran Milan Hejduk back for another year. Can David Jones duplicate or improve on his breakout season from last year? Will other young forwards step up to alleviate the burden from the big four? Is there a defensive puck move that can replace the loss of John-Michael Liles?

Unless the Avalanche reduce their goals against drastically this season they don’t stand a chance out West. The addition of Varlamov and veteran backup J.S. Giguere will certainly help, but it would be a surprise if it were enough behind a still shaky defense. The offense needs to find more individuals to contribute as well if they don’t want to regret losing that first round pick come next June.

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Dallas Stars

Heading into the start of the 2011-12 season the Dallas Stars can’t be looking for any one individual to replace the loss of Brad Richards down the middle. Instead the Stars will look for everyone on the roster to contribute a little bit more in order to collectively fill the void.

It’s not an easy proposition for a team to lose their star player after missing the post season and expect things to improve. However the situation in Dallas is a little more confusing than it looks on the surface. The uncertain ownership situation didn’t help in the Stars’ ability to retain Richards, and the fact they missed the playoffs is a bit skewed when you consider they finished the season with 95 points.

The Stars had a chance on the last day of the season to clinch a playoff berth but their hopes were dashed by a Minnesota club with nothing to lose. Now just a few months later they head into the season with a new head coach in Glen Gulutzan and Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro being relied upon even heavier.

Dallas added Michael Ryder through free agency this July and his addition should provide some needed secondary scoring to the lineup. They also added defensman Sheldon Souray on a one-year contract and hope the veteran can play competent defense while improving the power play with his shot from the point. Souray is a huge wild card for the Stars heading into the season and could be a player that is a difference maker either way in the Dallas lineup this season.

Stars also brought in veteran forwards Radek Dvorak and Vernon Fiddler this offseason. Both are expected to be role players and not contribute much offensively.

It’s going to be a real challenge for Dallas to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. Faced with the challenge of being in one of the best divisions in hockey, they also have to deal with the depth of the Western Conference and the loss of their top point getter. For the Stars to make the post season they’ll need a monster year from youngster Jamie Benn, a bruising power forward with 30 goal potential. Eriksson has been a stud for the Stars for several years now and they’ll need his production to stay on par with what it was been in recent seasons.

It would behoove the Stars to win every game they play against the bottom feeders of the Western Conference and against Eastern Conference foes. Dallas will compete within the division but with the additions made by the teams around them it could be another empty second season at the American Airlines Center.

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The Rooms
Bobby C Sports Columnist