Saturday NHL Odds & Betting Picks: Penguins vs. Canadiens Game 1 Preview (August 1)


Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

 Canadiens vs. Penguins Odds, Pick

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Canadiens Odds +155 [BET NOW]
Penguins Odds -189 [BET NOW]
Over/Under 5.5 [BET NOW]
Time 8 p.m. ET

The Montreal Canadiens are the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference and the biggest underdogs in the qualifying round. The Habs can be found as high as +195 (bet365), which implies they have a roughly a 33.9% chance of winning the series.

On the surface, that makes sense. The Penguins are a better team, they are getting a lot of important players back from injury and they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh is certainly a threat to win the Stanley Cup, but just because they are a contender doesn’t mean they are a good bet, especially in these circumstances.

One game, or even a best-of-5 series, is such a small sample size that anybody can pull off an upset, but just saying the Habs have a chance because of variance is selling them short.

Montreal was a much better team than people realized in 2019-20.

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.

Montreal Canadiens

I never really gave up on the Montreal Canadiens during the regular season. The Habs were a good team that posted mediocre results thanks to poor finishing and pedestrian goaltending, and that meant they were undervalued almost every night, especially when they were playing teams ahead of them in the standings.

That’s because Montreal’s underlying metrics, specifically its 54.14% expected goals rate (5-on-5), are right up there with the league’s elite teams. Only Vegas and Tampa Bay bested that mark in the regular season and only Vegas and Carolina produced more than Montreal’s 2.66 expected goals for per 60 minutes.

Additionally, only five teams spent more time with a lead than the Canadiens in 2019-20 and all of those teams finished inside the top four of their respective conference.

The Habs weren’t spectacular defensively in the regular season but their 2.26 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was still in the top third of the circuit. Like their offense, I think the Habs’ defense is better than people think and can compete with Pittsburgh’s deep forward group.

Pittsburgh Penguins

There is a lot to like about the Pittsburgh Penguins, especially when they are healthy. Their offense has the potential to be prolific, their team defense was spectacular for stretches during the season and they have game-breaking talent all over the ice.

Crosby and Malkin are the headliners on offense, but the Penguins’ real strength is their depth, especially now that they are finally healthy.

Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker, Patric Hornqvist, Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary should provide Crosby and Malkin with more than enough secondary scoring. Shutting down a group this deep is no easy task, and I wouldn’t look too much into the fact that the Penguins were below league average at generating scoring chances.

Not only do the Penguins have the scoring talent to outrun those metrics, they also were never really fully healthy as a group in the regular season, so there’s a chance that we haven’t seen Pittsburgh operate at its best yet.

Heatmap via

I actually invested in the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup at 25-1 back in December because of their defense, which at the time, was posting some of the league’s best metrics.

Those numbers dipped as the season went on but I’d chalk a lot of that up to injuries as only one defenseman, Marcus Pettersson, was able to play in all 69 games for Pittsburgh this season. With Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Kris Letang and Pettersson anchoring the top four, the Penguins should provide a lot of help for their goaltenders, which is important because they may have an issue in the blue paint.

Head coach Mike Sullivan has a decision to make in goal as incumbent No. 1 Matt Murray struggled during the season, while back-up Tristan Jarry posted some encouraging results. I’d suspect Murray will get the nod on account of experience, but his -13.98 Goals Saved Above Expectations (GSAx) in 2019-20 was the sixth-worst mark in the NHL and definitely cause for concern.

The cruel nature of hockey, especially playoff hockey, is that a cold series from your goaltender can sink a team that is otherwise playing well. If Murray doesn’t improve on his regular season form, the Pens could be in more trouble than the odds suggest.

Betting Analysis

If your betting strategy is to just pick the team that’s more likely to win no matter the price, then by all means go pay up for Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more nuance to betting than that and that way of thinking will catch up to you down the road.

So even though the Habs lose to the Penguins far more often than they win, the price is good enough to invest in Montreal. The Habs can hang with any team in the NHL at 5-on-5 and if they get Carey Price back on track, they’re live dogs in this series. So as long as you’re OK knowing that you lose these bets more often than you win them, I think the Habs will be the value side in the single-game and series market.

The market seems to be in agreement with that sentiment as Montreal has ticked down to +145 or even +140 at some sportsbooks.

There’s going to be a lot of casual money in the market on Saturday night so there’s a chance the Penguins will take a chunk of money right before puck drop but I’m not going to risk missing out on the +155 at BetMGM.

Even the Habs do tick down market-wide, I still think they are worth a bet at +145 or better to win Game 1 and/or +185 or better to win the series. I also took a small shot on the Habs to win the Stanley Cup at +8000.

I just can’t quit this team.

[Bet now at BetMGM. CO, NJ, IN and WV only.]

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