Thursday NHL Odds, Picks, Predictions: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs Game 1 Betting Preview (May, 20)

Thursday NHL Odds, Picks, Predictions: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs Game 1 Betting Preview (May, 20) article feature image

Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Carey Price.

  • The final playoff series yet to start finally gets under way as Toronto hosts Montreal on Thursday night.
  • The Canadiens are a +170 favorite to win Game 1 after an entire week off to rest and prepare for a Toronto franchise that historically struggles in the playoffs.
  • Matt Russell explains below why the price is too high for Game 1, but he's still betting the North Division's top seed for the series.

Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs Odds

Canadiens Odds+180
Maple Leafs Odds-215
Over/Under5.5 (-120 / -103)
TimeThursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Odds updated Thursday afternoon via DraftKings.

I once dated a girl that terrified me. Not because I thought she was going to beat me up, or murder me in my sleep or something, but because when I would go to pick her up, I would have no idea what version of her I was going to get.

It was like the personality version on the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend looks different depending on the light. Needless to say, this was no way to live, and my time with this young lady didn’t last very long. It didn’t cost me much in the end, as I cut my losses. 

As seemingly all of Canada gets amped up for the first playoff meeting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens since 1979, we’re charged with deciding on who to bet, and how to bet on them without knowing what version of the Habs we’re going to get.

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Canadiens Should Benefit From Time Off

The avid, rabid Canadiens fan base is up in arms because the franchise's brass has decided that they’ll be going with a veteran-heavy lineup in Game 1 against the Maple Leafs.

Whether or not you want to get into a deep “hockey guy” conversation about the decision to sit the young, talented Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield, you have to acknowledge that it’s a good problem to have. The Canadiens have all of a sudden built a deep enough forward group that, when healthy, they have viable options that have to sit out. 

Their number of quality forwards has come out of necessity as they spent the last six weeks of the season treading water. Due to an ill-timed COVID-19 hiatus, the Canadiens spent the final third of the season without the luxury of two days off in a row, and often played back-to-back games. The wear and tear piled up to the point where you could excuse a late season swoon that briefly put them in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. 

Fortunately for Montreal, the various COVID pausations in the North Division have resulted in the delay to the start to the playoffs for Canada’s teams, leaving this matchup as the last one to get started, and more importantly, giving the Canadiens a full week off to catch their breath and then some.

Captain Shea Weber will return. Long-time starting goaltender Carey Price looks to be back in the crease. Brendan Gallagher, the commonly-considered ‘straw that stirs the drink’ appears to be set for the start of this series. 

This is all particularly relevant because the Canadiens’ predictive analytics paint a different picture when comparing the first part of the season with the latter portion. The following is a snapshot of the Canadiens before and after Gallagher’s last regular season game on April 5.

(Of note: Carey Price completed just one more game after April 6.)

StatBefore April 6After April 6
High-Danger Chances For 5v5319141
High-Danger Chances Against 5v5242190
High-Danger Conversion Rate 5v514.7%10.6%
High-Danger Goals 5v54715
Expected Goals For 5v51.9191.615
Expected Goals Against 5v51.4591.793
Expected Goals Share 5v556.8%47.3%

It’s not hard to figure out that the Canadiens were much better in all of the categories before April 6th, but the important number is the one on the last line of the chart.

Based on their play since the Gallagher injury, according to my “Let’s Do That Hockey” model, as heard on THE WINDOW: Sports Betting Podcast, the Habs would have just a 35.4% chance to beat an average team on neutral ice.

Prior to that, when the Habs were healthier and playing a more considerate schedule, they would have a 66.8% chance of beating that league-average team. Obviously, in both cases, there’s a small sample size issue here, but that’s a pretty drastic difference, with a clear line of demarcation.

Expected goals (also known as xG) is a predictive statistic that gives an indication of whether results are based on sustainable factors like a steady creation of scoring chances, or whether it is down to aspects such as shooting luck or outstanding goaltending.

Simply put, an expected goals rate (xGF%) above 50% is considered good because it means a team is creating the majority of the scoring chances. Anything below 50% is usually a sign that a team is struggling to control play.

xG numbers and advanced stats cited from Evolving Hockey, MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick.

Maple Leafs Must Conquer Playoff Demons

Toronto is no average team, at least not in the North Division. We’ll have plenty of time to debate where the top dogs in Canada this season rank when compared to the teams south of the border at a later date. In the meantime, all that matters is divisional play, and even though their early-season win percentage was unsustainable, the Leafs’ play at even-strength only got better and better.

They started the season with a +5% rating, improved that to +12% after a seven-game winning streak, and despite a five-game losing streak in their last third of the season, they finished their meaningful games at 14.2% above average, meaning they would beat an average team 64.2% of the time. 

The Maple Leafs have the reputation as playoff failures, and boy is that earned. Personally, I’ve lived in Toronto since the lost lockout season of 2005, and I’ve never seen my neighbours celebrate a playoff series win. While that’s the first line in most handicaps of the Maple Leafs’ chances, it’s more than a little lazy.

The vast majority of that time, the Maple Leafs were somewhere between slight underdogs and massive underdogs in their playoff matchups. Only last year, at home in the bubble, did the Maple Leafs flunk their first test as favourites, against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round. 

The complaints cited most with the Maple Leafs are a disinterest in defence and a lack of reliable depth, given their heavy investment in top-end talent Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

However, veteran adds like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and trade-deadline acquisition Nick Foligno have answered the latter issue, while the response to the former question mark can be found in the numbers. The Leafs allowed an average of 1.63 Expected Goals at even-strength this season, which isn’t setting records but is slightly better than average, especially while they accumulate more two Expected Goals For at even-strength. 

The big question mark in Leafs Nation is in net. Jack Campbell caught fire to start his career with the Maple Leafs, going undefeated in his first 11 games, and made the faithful forget about the injured Frederik Andersen.

However, that fire has started to smolder, and the Maple Leafs now have a vivid recollection of their incumbent, which means that should Campbell show any signs of struggles, there will be impatient calls for Andersen’s return.

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Betting Analysis & Pick

As we finally pull into the driveway to pick up this series for the Stanley Cup Playoff party, what can we hope for as we ring the bell, and how do we plan to bet the series and game one?

It’s taken nearly a week, but I can’t help shake the idea that the hockey world is judging the Canadiens by the exhausted, beat-up version of themselves that we saw much more recently. 

The series price sits at TOR -360/MTL +280, which is an implied win probability of 78.3% and 26.3% respectively. While no one has more questions than I do about Carey Price at this point in his career, it’s not like the Maple Leafs' goaltending situation is particularly solid.

I also don’t know enough about the Canadiens' game plan to be brazen enough to judge their roster choices. All I know is that, like me in my 20s, the Maple Leafs have a type. They fall to defensively responsible teams who attack on transition with multiple lines. 

If the Canadiens are the healthy, deep, defensively disciplined version of themselves from not just early in the regular season, but also the playoffs last year (knocking out the Pittsburgh Penguins), they could pull the upset here. Both literally and figuratively, it comes down to Price here.

Getting Montreal at +280 is too juicy to pass up, given that if there’s one goaltender capable of stepping up big, it’s the future Hall of Famer. The Maple Leafs could very easily find themselves frustrated offensively, and this is a franchise that’s got some demons.

On top of the series bet, if the Canadiens are good enough to survive and advance past the Maple Leafs, it will show that the best version of Montreal is coming to the door and ready to have a good time.

They’ll be live in the second round against either Edmonton or Winnipeg, so let’s take a little piece of the Canadiens to advance out of the North Division at the mega-juicy price of +700 odds.

As for Game 1, I’m actually looking to pass on the game price here. If the Habs get the win, I’ll be content with our other Canadiens investments. If they’re dominated the way the media seems to think they will be, we’ll have saved ourselves a unit.

Pick: Canadiens to win series (+280 or better) | Canadiens to win North (+700 or better)

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