Sabres at Capitals Odds & Picks: Will Shorthanded Washington Upset Buffalo? (Friday, Jan. 22)
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Nicklas Backstrom
- The Capitals enter Friday's game shorthanded after violiating the league's COVID-19 protocols.
- Buffalo is a defensive-minded team but struggles to create scoring opportunity.
- Read the full game preview below along with a betting pick.
Capitals vs. Sabres Odds
|Time||7 p.m. ET|
Well, this will be a weird one. The Washington Capitals became the first team to get punished for breaking the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols. Not only was the team fined $100,000, but Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov will also miss the next four games. That’s the team’s leading goal-scorer, No. 1 center, a top-four defenseman and starting goaltender.
Bookmakers reacted by tabbing the Sabres as -127 favorite for Friday’s game. Buffalo closed at +115 and +108, respectively, when these two teams met for a back-to-back a week ago.
Hockey is already a tough enough sport to project because of how luck-driven it is, so adding in this kind of tumult is not much fun to try and decipher. While we don’t know if this blow will galvanize the Caps, we do know it takes a lot of high-end talent out of a lineup that relies heavily on its stars to get results.
With Ovechkin and Kuznetsov out, the Caps will roll with Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson on the top line, while Lars Eller will take Backstrom’s spot as the No. 2 center in between T.J. Oshie and Richard Panik. Vrana, Backstrom, Oshie and Wilson are all solid top-six forwards, but this isn’t a unit that will strike fear into an opponent. Especially since the Caps are due for a bit of offensive regression.
The Caps usually beat their expected goals thanks to players like Ovechkin, but so far this season Washington is only creating 1.82 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. If they struggle to create scoring chances in this game, they won’t have Ovi (or to a lesser extent, Kuznetsov) to bail them out with a moment of brilliance.
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.
Instead, the Caps’ best path to success is by winning from the back to the front, and the good news is that Washington’s defense is off to a good start. Peter Laviolette likes his team to suppress shot attempts, and the Caps have done that through their first four games under the veteran coach. The Capitals rank second in the NHL in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes and they are tied for sixth in expected goals allowed.
Despite bringing in Taylor Hall and Eric Staal to bolster their offense, its clear that Ralph Krueger wants his Sabres to play a low-event style of hockey and win games with strong defensive efforts. Despite struggling overall, Buffalo finished 10th in the NHL with a 2.26 xGA/60 last season. The Sabres have carried that defense-first ethos into the new season and are allowing just 1.55 xGA/60 through their first four games.
The problem is that Buffalo is still struggling to create scoring opportunities. You’d think a team with Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner, Hall and Staal would generate more going forward, but the Sabres are still stuck in second-gear with a 2.14 xGF/60.
In addition to finding more offense, the Sabres will also need their goaltending to improve from last season when they were near the bottom of the league in Goals Saved Above Expectation. Carter Hutton has received the majority of the playing time through the first four games while Linus Ullmark dealt with a personal issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ullmark gets the nod on Friday since Hutton has stumbled to a -2.5 GSAx through his first three games.
Hockey is weird. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, this crazy sport will humble you. That’s why it’s careful not to get caught up thinking that Buffalo is a lock just because the Caps will be missing four of their most important players.
The Sabres deserve to be favorites, sure, but they have some deep flaws and aren’t the type of team I’d want to lay too much wood with. Buffalo struggles to create offense and its goaltending is a bit of a mess, so its not like the Sabres are built to blow out lesser opposition. Washington’s improved defense should keep it in the game, too.
That said, it’s Buffalo or nothing at the current prices for me.
At the time of writing, the best number on Buffalo is -130 at MGM, which carries an implied win probability of 56.5%. I think that number is playable, but I wouldn’t go much higher than that.
Pick: Buffalo Sabres -130 or better