An in-depth, series-by-series look at the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs

An in-depth, series-by-series look at the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs
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The NHL playoffs begin this week, and while there might be limited interest in Houston, there are a few of us out there who care. So we will dive in to all eight opening series, with some betting options offered as well.The most important thing is goaltending. You don't necessarily need an elite goaltender, but you need one that can play at an elite level for four rounds to win the Stanley Cup. With that in mind, here we go:

EASTERN CONFERENCEAtlantic DivisionA1 Tampa Bay vs. WC2 Columbus

Series prices: Tampa -340, Columbus +280.

The matchup: The Lightning are the most complete team in hockey and set a record for regular season wins. But they have also come up short in the playoffs in the past. The main reason is their best player has been Steven Stamkos, and he has either been hurt or underperformed in the postseason. He is no longer their best player - that honor goes to Nikita Kucherov, who put up 41 goals and 128 points to lead the league. Stamkos had 45 goals himself and 98 points. Brayden Point gave them a trio of 40-goal scorers with his 41. They roll out four quality lines, are stacked on defense and have an elite goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.40 goals against average, .925 save percentage). They are simply a team without a weakness. The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series, but they made several deadline moves to beef up their scoring. Defensively they are strong, and if goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can steal a couple games, they have a shot. He can be brilliant at times, average at others. He posted a 2.58 GAA and .913 save percentage but was at his best down the stretch.

Prediction: Lightning in six, but not going to fault anyone who bets for some value with the Blue Jackets.

A2 Boston vs. A3 Toronto

Series prices: Boston -160, Toronto +140.

The matchup: These teams were both considered Cup contenders before the season, and at times they have looked exactly like that. But both teams have been inconsistent. Boston rolls out perhaps the best top line in hockey. The Leafs have the deepest forward group outside of Tampa. Both teams have been spotty defensively, but Boston is better when healthy. The reality is whichever goalie plays best will likely determine the series. Boston is led by Tukka Rask (2.48 GAA, .912 save percentage) and Jaroslav Halak (2.34, .922). Toronto's Frederik Andersen (2.77, .917) can play at an elite level at times, but has also been inconsistent and the leaky defense in front of him will test him. Both teams limped into the playoffs not playing very well, so this one is a true tossup.

Prediction: Bruins in seven. As a longtime Leafs fan I am hoping I am wrong on this one.

Metropolitan DivisionM1 Washington vs. WC1 Carolina

Series prices: Washington -145, Carolina +125.

The matchup: Don't look now but the defending champs are playing at a high level again. Alex Ovechkin is still the best goal scorer in the league with 51, but the Caps had six other players with at least 20 goals. Defensively John Carlson is a legitimate No. 1 and goalie Braden Holtby raised his game in the playoffs last year and could do so again after posting a 2.82 and .911. Carolina is making its first appearance in the playoffs in 10 years. They do not have a lot of players that jump off the page at you, but they play solid defense and they rotated in several goalies who played well, including Petr Mrazek down the stretch. The Hurricanes have been hot down the stretch, but they run into a better, more talented and equally hot team in Washington.

Prediction: Caps in five.

M2 Islanders vs. M3 Penguins

Series prices: Islanders +120, Penguins -140.

The matchup: The Islanders were a big surprise this season after losing star forward John Tavares. They went with a more grind-it-out defensive style, adding Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz from Washington, and it paid off with a playoff berth. They do not have a lot of high-end skill, but make up for it with rugged play and outstanding goaltending from the duo of Robin Lehner (2.13, .930) and Thomas Greiss (2.28, .927). Those two have been amazing all year. Meanwhile, no one wants to play the Penguins in the playoffs. Every year it is the same narrative; Penguins struggle early and look like they might miss the playoffs, and all the "are the Penguins done?" stories start popping up. They make a few moves, play well down the stretch and make the playoffs, where all they have done is win two Cups and lose to the Cup winner the past three years. Sid Crosby had another ho-hum 100 points. Jake Guentzel scored 40 goals. Geno Malkin had an off year but battled injuries and usually picks it up in the playoffs. Kris Letang is still a legit No. 1 defenseman. And after a slow start, goalie Matt Murray finished with a solid 2.69 and .919. And he has two Cups. Trotz struggled to beat the Penguins when he had more talent in Washington.

Prediction: Pens in five.

WESTERN CONFERENCECentral DivisionC1 Nashville vs. WC1 Dallas

Series prices: Nashville -175, Dallas +155.

The matchup: The Stars overcame a rough start to grab a wild card, and if they can keep goalie Ben Bishop (1.98, .934) healthy, they have a fighting chance. Their best players (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin) have just been OK this year, and will need to raise their games. The defense has been better than past years, however, which is why the Stars are in the postseason again. The Preds forward group is not as good as Dallas, but they have perhaps the best and deepest defense in the league. They have been oh so close in recent years, and as usual, how far they go likely comes down to goalie Pekka Rinne (2.42, .918). When he is at his best, they are serious Cup contenders. But he has had the occasional sloppy playoff game in the past and it has come back to haunt them. It should not matter in this series, but it will moving forward.

Prediction: Preds in six.

C2 Winnipeg vs. C3 St. Louis

Series prices: Winnipeg -105, St. Louis -115.

The matchup: No team has played better than St. Louis down the stretch, and it is all because of goalie find Jordan Binnington, he of the 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage. He had five shutouts in just 32 games. If he continues that play, the Blues can win it all, but this is the big stage. Winnipeg was a preseason Cup contender, but injuries and a down year from Patrik Laine plus a bad finish has made them look ordinary. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a monster last season, has been pretty average (2.90, .913). All the money will be going on St. Louis here, but if Binnington falters and the Jets put it together, Winnipeg can win this.

Prediction: Jets in seven.

P1 Calgary vs. WC2 Colorado

Series prices: Calgary -185, Colorado +165.

The matchup: The Avs managed to slip into the playoffs for the second straight year thanks to one of the top lines in hockey. Beyond that, however, they just don't have that much. Calgary is sneaky deep at forward, has several good defensemen, and their top line can hold its own with Colorado's. The Flames should make quick work of the Avs here, but their deeper concern is goaltending, where David Rittich was average (2.61, .911) and veteran Mike Smith was simply bad (2.73, .898). It should not bite them here, but the next round is a different story.

Prediction: Flames in six.

P2 San Jose vs. P3 Las Vegas

Series prices: San Jose -110, Las Vegas -110.

The matchup: I am holding a ticket at 18-1 on San Jose to win it all. They likely won't get past the Knights. The Sharks are talented at forward and have one of the best scoring defensemen in hockey with Brett Burns. They acquired Erik Karlsson in the offseason to boost the defense, but he struggled to fit in early, then got hurt. If he is 100 percent, the Sharks have a chance. The biggest issue has been goaltender Martin Jones, whose .896 save percentage is the worst of any playoff starter. His GAA was 2.94. The Golden Knights started slow but got better as the season progressed, and improved dramatically at the trade deadline. They are balanced up front (five 20-goal scorers) and good on defense. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has not been as brilliant this year as he was in last year's run to the Cup final, but he gets a big checkmark in the matchup department and can raise his game in the playoffs.

Prediction: Knights in six.

Beyond Round 1

I think we are looking at rematches in the East, with Washington-Pittsburgh and Tampa-Boston. I think Tampa and Washington advance and the Lightning roll on to their first Cup. I have Nashville over Winnipeg in Round 2, and Vegas beating Calgary. Vegas beats the Preds in 7 and returns to the final, losing to Tampa. There are some interesting possibilities if we see first round upsets. If Dallas can get past Nashville, they match up well with the Jets. Same goes for Toronto with Tampa. If the Blues keep getting great goaltending, they could make a run as well.

Betting options

I like the series prices on Pittsburgh, Winnipeg and Las Vegas. For Cup odds, there is no value in Tampa, but if you are looking for prices, how about Washington (+1200), Nashville (+1300) and Vegas (+1400).

Enjoy the playoffs!

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With their closer revealed, here are the Astros top bullpen X-factors

Houston Astros skipper Joe Espada wasted no time this week at spring training by answering one of the most talked about questions of the offseason.

Espada revealed that newly-acquired free agent Josh Hader will be the team's closer and will pitch the ninth inning, with Ryan Pressly working as the setup man.

Bryan Abreu will be tapped to pitch the seventh inning, but it wouldn't shock anyone if he had the best season of the three. But after Abreu, things get interesting in the bullpen.

Who pitches the sixth inning?

Astros GM Dana Brown gave Rafael Montero a vote of confidence, saying he's “legit.”

While we have our concerns about Montero after he finished with an ERA over five last year, there's reason for hope. The nature of relief pitchers halving up and down seasons from year to year could work in Montero's favor.

And with the salary that's already committed to him, Brown will likely give him every opportunity to justify his contract. It will be fascinating to see how Espada deploys him early on. You have to think with the boss man backing Montero, Espada will be on board too.

But if he does struggle, will Espada quickly stop using him in critical situations? The good news is, the team won't often have to turn to him in high leverage situations with Abreu, Pressly, and Hader ready to handle those duties.

Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion about the Astros 'pen, and much more!

Don't miss Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every week on SportsMapHouston's YouTube channel!

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