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Saturday NHL Best Bets: Our Top Picks, Including Oilers-Maple Leafs, Jets-Canucks & More (Jan. 30)

Saturday NHL Best Bets: Our Top Picks, Including Oilers-Maple Leafs, Jets-Canucks & More (Jan. 30) article feature image

Claus Andersen/Getty Images. Pictured: Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid.

  • Things should heat up on the ice across North America on Saturday, with 12 games on the loaded NHL card.
  • Our NHL staff breaks down their top betting picks from Saturday's slate.

After a one-game Friday slate, the NHL comes roaring back Saturday with a dozen games, starting at 1 p.m. ET and wrapping up with a 10 p.m. ET puck drop in western Canada.

Through the first 114 games of the 2021 season, favorites are 75-39 (65.7%) overall, while home favorites have gone 48-16 (75%). Perhaps there’s something about this season’s unique setup, but at some point you’d expect these numbers to regress.

Since 2011-12 (and including this season), home favorites have a 59% win rate. Their best clip, which came in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, was 62.7 percent.

Will those trends continue this weekend? Here are our favorite bets for Saturday’s 12-game slate:

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Michael Leboff: Devils (+135) vs. Sabres

  • Puck Drop: 1 p.m. ET

The Devils are coming off a pair of losses to the Flyers during the midweek, but you can’t really be too sour with how New Jersey played in the two-game set, specifically in the second game.

The Devils, who were +138 underdogs against Philadelphia on Thursday, dominated the puck all night but couldn’t beat Carter Hart. New Jersey doubled Philadelphia up on shots, 34-17, and won the expected-goals battle by a 2.45 to 1.94 margin.

There was always a chance the gamescript went that way, with New Jersey playing well but losing because of Philadelphia’s goaltending edge with Carter Hart taking on journeyman Scott Wedgewood, but that shouldn’t be a huge issue Saturday since the Sabres don’t have good goaltending.

Even though the Devils’ overall metrics don’t look that impressive, they do need some context. New Jersey has been missing key players at both ends of the ice, as Nico Hischier and Sami Vatanen have yet to play a game; Jesper Bratt didn’t make his season debut until Thursday; and, Mackenzie Blackwood has been shelved since the third game of the season.

That’s the Devils’ No. 2 center, a top-four defenseman, a top-six winger and their starting goaltender. For this team to skate out to a 3-3-1 record with those kind of setbacks is impressive.

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 cited from Evolving Hockey.

Things don’t look particularly rosy for the Devils under the hood. New Jersey has a -0.39 expected goal differential per 60 minutes (xGD/60), so you’d expect that its +0.64 goal differential per 60 (GD/60) will come down to Earth.

However, what’s interesting about those numbers is that the Devils are actually underperforming their expected goals on offense. New Jersey is creating 2.23 xG/60, but only scoring 2.08 goals per hour. The Devils need more offense from down the lineup. Jack Hughes can’t be the only threat on this team. Bratt’s arrival and his strong debut should help there, though.

The sooner the offense can start to click the better, because there’s no way that New Jersey’s goaltenders will continue to stop 95% of the shots they see at 5-on-5.

On the surface, the Buffalo Sabres look like a picture of mediocrity. Buffalo is 3-3-2 with a minus-1 goal differential and sit fifth in the eight-team East Division. There are some positive developments in Western New York, though. Nobody will ever confuse the Sabres with a run-and-gun team, but they’re making their low-event style of hockey work. Buffalo ranks 10th in the NHL with a +0.34 xGD/60 and is third with a 1.64 xGA/60.

The Sabres’ strong defensive game is important because they don’t create a ton of scoring chances and, more notably, they don’t have good goaltending. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have combined for a -4.54 Goals Saved Above Expectation (GSAx) this season and they are both coming off down years in 2019/20. Buffalo’s defense makes life easy on its goalies, but Buffalo’s goalies makes life difficult on the defense.

As for the offense, the Sabres have a pretty clear vision. They will keep things predictable, pragmatic and hope Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall or one of their other skilled forwards can come up with the goods. The Sabres are only scoring 1.82 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and their xGF/60 isn’t much better at 1.98.

These two teams came into the season with very similar expectations. In fact, they both came into the season with the same Over/Under (54.5).

Despite that, I think the Sabres are a slightly better overall team compared to New Jersey and are deserving favorites in this spot. Buffalo has more high-end talent in its current lineup, but that’s really the only big edge in this matchup. Both lack depth down the roster and the goaltending battle is basically a wash.

At -148, oddsmakers are implying Buffalo wins this game close to 60% of the time. Honestly, I think that number flatters the Sabres. The gap between these teams just isn’t that wide.

I like New Jersey at +125 or better and will continue to suffer the consequences of betting against home chalk.

Matt Russell: Oilers (+110) vs. Maple Leafs

  • Puck Drop: 7 p.m. ET

The Maple Leafs have won four consecutive games, but in doing so haven’t been the better team 5-on-5 in any of those games from an expected goals  for (XGF) standpoint. Add it all up and Toronto has been good enough for 7.06 XGF in the four games, while its opponents have played to an expectation of 9.35 XGF.

From a situational standpoint, anyone even remotely associated with the Maple Leafs would have been thrilled with taking six out of possible eight points on their trip to Alberta, regardless of how they played. Now Toronto has those points banked, and it’s human nature to feel “mission accomplished” even before puck drop.

The Oilers have enough talent on their power play that eventually their efficiency will meet up with the Leafs atop the NHL’s  power-play rankings as a matter of mutual regression. They took a big step toward that Thursday, with the Oilers converting two of seven opportunities and improving to three of 12 in the games against the Maple Leafs.

With the worm starting to turn on the man-advantage for the Oilers, I’m willing to bet they’re still good enough at even strength to be a live home underdog against Toronto.

Pete Truszkowski: Carolina Hurricanes (-124) vs. Dallas Stars

  • Puck Drop: 7 p.m. ET

Both Carolina and Dallas have had their seasons disrupted due to COVID-19 issues, but neither have let it impact their respective performances. The Stars have a perfect 4-0-0 record and the Hurricanes have won three of four, including a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Both teams will be without key players in this game. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop are out for Dallas, while Roope Hintz and Blake Comeau are questionable. Carolina will be missing play-making winger Teuvo Teravainen and top-pair defenseman Jaccob Slavin.

The Stars and Hurricanes rank in the league’s top half in terms of expected goals rate, with the Hurricanes holding an xG differential advantage of +0.58 per game compared to Dallas’ +0.15. However, the two teams get to these results in very different ways.

Carolina is second in the NHL in expected-goals scored per game, behind trailing Tampa Bay. On the flipside, Dallas has the best expected-goals against of any team in hockey to start the season. With such a small sample size, it’s worth noting that the Hurricanes were second in xGF/60 minutes last season, while the Stars were the seventh-best team in xGA/60 minutes.

That said, I think Carolina is the better team in this matchup. The Stars do well protecting their net, but the Hurricanes arerelentless in terms of puck pursuit and peppering the other team’s goaltender. With players like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes also have more high-end talent than the Stars do on the offensive side.

In the early going of this season, favorites are 76-38 (66.6%). Additionally, home teams are 71-43 (62.3%). With these trends, I’ll happily take the stronger team as a small favorite. I like Carolina at -130 or better.

Sam Hitchcock: Canucks-Jets Over 6 goals (-125)

  • Puck Drop: 10 p.m. ET

Rare is the game where either team has the capability of singlehandedly posting seven goals, which would carry bettors to the over. The game featuring the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets is that matchup.

Like an action-packed movie that is utterly incoherent, the flaws of both teams are engrossing. Unless, of course, you’re a fan of either squad.

Last season, the Jets posted the league’s worst expected-goals percentage at 5-on-5, with their offense and defense equally culpable. The only reason they had a decent record was because Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck kept them from completely sinking.

In 2021, the Winnipeg’s offense is much better and even the defense has seen improvement. At 5-on-5, the Jets’ defense is now only a top-10 bad outfit in expected-goals against, instead of one of the very worst. However, ironically, Winnipeg was better last season in goals against per game, and that is partly because the penalty kill has fallen off a cliff, with the Jets at 68.4 percent and third worst in the league.

Yet, there is one skill that could help the Jets offset their penalty kill woes: They are second in the NHL in penalties drawn per 60 minutes. And boy, are they facing the perfect opponent to capitalize on this talent.

The Canucks lead the NHL in penalties taken per hour. And Vancouver’s lack of discipline seeps into their even-strength play as well. The Canucks have the second worst expected-goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and lead the league in shots against per hour. There are times when they appear to dispatch with any pretense of attempting to play diligent defense.

Could goaltending be an obstacle to this bet? Perhaps, but Hellebuyck hasn’t been the bulwark he was last season, with his Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) currently at -1.85.

As a reference point for readers, Hellebuyck is faring slightly worse in that metric than Ottawa’s Marcus Hogberg. Both Vancouver goaltenders are registering better GSAx’s than Hellebuyck, but sadly, they’re at the mercy of its helter-skelter defensive coverage.

The path to victory for both teams is outscoring their mistakes. Each squad has the skill up front to do it. Picking a winner of this game means backing a completely unreliable partner. Instead, at +104 for the total going over the number via DraftKings, bettors should invest in mutually assured destruction.

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