It was a tough slog through Round 1 with five Game 7’s. Despite a slew of lopsided scores, seven of the eight matchups were all very close. It’s a reflection of the parity across the league, where the difference between the first and eight seeds isn’t nearly as big as you’d think, and battles between the divisional foes and even the wild card teams were essentially coin flips. The margin for error should be even smaller for Round 2.
Below are the update BetMGM odds for the Stanley Cup champion and an updated list of playoff pool picks for leagues that allow re-drafts or trades. Players marked with a * indicate those who have moved from the “top playoff pick” category to “depth playoff pick” category or vice versa, and those marked with ** indicate a new addition based on their Round 1 performances.
Florida Panthers ((BetMGM Cup Odds: 4.75)
It was a close call against the Capitals and we’re still waiting for the Panthers’ power play to click, but at the end of the day, the better team won. The Panthers had not won a single playoff series since their miraculous run to the Finals in 1996, and this is arguably the most talented group they’ve ever assembled. Their big problem isn’t goaltending, as some had anticipated with Sergei Bobrovsky playing every single minute in their first-round series, but the defense in front of him. Their penalty kill is at just 70.8 percent, Aaron Ekblad has supplied the points but injuries are an on-going concern, Radko Gudas’ lack of mobility is much more apparent in the playoffs and trade-deadline acquisition Ben Chiarot hasn’t made much of an impact.
Best Path: The Lightning defeated the Panthers twice in the season, including a 9-3 blowout, but the Panthers’ recipe should be the same as the one in the season: offense and more offense. Bobrovsky hasn’t been good enough to give any indication that he can steal the series by himself, and the Panthers' power play can only get shut out for so long, right? If they can get their special teams going and their supporting cast, including Anthony Duclair (2 assists), Anton Lundell (1 goal) and Mac Weegar (1 assist), can step up, they have the talent to pull off a series win and justify being the odds-on favorite to come out of the East at 4.75 odds. Even Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart have yet to really hit their stride. If the Panthers end the Lightning’s bid for a threepeat, the Canes might be the more desirable conference finals opponent, having swept the season series 3-0-0 (though two were in overtime) and going 1-2-0 against the Rangers, who have the presumptive Vezina winner, Igor Shesterkin, in net.
Top playoff picks: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Carter Verhaeghe*
Depth playoff picks: Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, Aaron Ekblad*, Mac Weegar, Gustav Forsling**, Sergei Bobrovsky
Player to watch: Huberdeau cannot afford to be second or third-best forward on the ice. The talented left winger scored just one goal and three points, and his current 5.9 S% is far below his career season average of 12.6 S%. Huberdeau scored seven points in four games against the Lightning during the season. He can be a lot better and he’s key to the Panthers’ success, not Carter Verhaeghe or 34-year-old Claude Giroux, with all due respect.
Tampa Bay Lightning (BetMGM Cup Odds: 7.50)
As noted in the East’s Round 1 preview, the Leafs-Lightning series might end up being the toughest matchup in the entire playoffs. That proved to be true since the series was so close – literally one shot and one goal, and I’m not just talking overtime – and for the Lightning, the biggest challenge may already be behind them. Either team could’ve won that series and come out as the favorites in Round 2. Some cause for concern: only three Lightning forwards finished the series a positive plus-minus rating, and even with a solid top-four defense, Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t look particularly sharp. Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of high-pressure hockey games they’ve played over the past two-plus seasons, especially with the short off-seasons and COVID-induced pauses, but the Lightning look a little more vulnerable than usual.
Best Path: Even with two consecutive Cups under their belt, note that the all-time season series against the Panthers is 75-71-10 – just ever so slightly in the Lightning’s favor, though BetMGM still has the Panthers more likely to advance. If their defense holds and Vasilevskiy can regain his form, the Lightning should win. The offense might be a wash, but only if Brayden Point is healthy. Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, who was the hero of Game 7, have provided eight total points, but in terms of overall impact have not been quite as effective as Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. The Canes are probably the better opponent in the following round, since the Lightning went 0-2-1 against the Rangers during the season and have to face Igor Shesterkin, the biggest threat to Vasilevskiy’s status as the best goalie in the world.
Top playoff picks: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman
Depth playoff picks: Brayden Point*, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul**, Ross Colton**, Ryan McDonagh*, Andrei Vasilevskiy*
Player to watch: Cirelli scored just one point in Round 1 – a shorthanded goal – and despite a 2.86 xGF at 5-on-5, has yet to be on the ice for a goal scored. His role will surely increase if Point is unavailable, and Cirelli’s two-way player will be absolutely vital because the Panthers have a killer offense.
Betting trend: The Lightning-Leafs and Panthers-Capitals series featured brilliant offensive players on each team, but in most cases barely covered the over/under bets at 6.5. In the playoffs, the tendency is to really focus on shutting down the opponents’ top players – just look at how the Panthers focused on Alex Ovechkin – and the same might happen in this series. The Lightning had eight different forwards who scored at least two goals but no standout performer, and the Panthers power play has yet to get going. However, if the dam breaks… look for this to be a really high-scoring series. We’ll learn more about both teams once the puck drops, so save some of the bankrolls for the later games when we get a better feel for both teams.