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3 NHL Picks for Sunday’s Golden Knights vs. Stars Series Opener

3 NHL Picks for Sunday’s Golden Knights vs. Stars Series Opener article feature image

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images. Pictured: Reilly Smith (19), Thatcher Demko (35).

  • With the Vegas Golden Knights facing the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the NHL's Western Conference Finals on Sunday, Sam Hitchcock takes a look at his favorite bets for the game.
  • Find out why he likes under 6 goals for the game, under 1.5 goals for the Stars and Golden Knights right winger Reilly Smith to score.

Game 1: Stars vs. Golden Knights Odds

Stars Odds +150 [BET NOW]
Golden Knights Odds -180 [BET NOW]
Over/Under 6 (-107/-114) [BET NOW]
Time 8 p.m. ET

Odds as of Sunday morning and via DraftKings. Get up to a $1,000 sign-up bonus at DraftKings today or see more offers and reviews for the best online sportsbooks.

Were the Dallas Stars’ last four games a blip or something more problematic? Surely that question is rattling around in the head of Stars coach Rick Bowness as his team submitted an unsteady performance in its conference semifinal against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Stars controlled play in the first three games, jumping out to a 2-1 lead. They barely won the next game and then lost two straight with a mostly torpid effort. Dallas went from having the answer to neutralizing Colorado’s speed to being completely helpless against it.

The Avs were entertaining and feisty, but injuries ultimately sapped their depth and sank their prospects.

The Vegas Golden Knights are different. They are healthy and can receive scoring from any of their four lines or defensemen. Against Vegas, Dallas will need to reckon with how aggressive its defensemen can play without getting burned.

My view is that the Stars will struggle to score and will spend most of the game chasing the puck around their own zone. Below are three bets I like for Game 1.

Under 6 goals (-120)

A bet on six goals or more is founded on the expectation that the two teams will match each other in scoring. I doubt that. The Stars and Golden Knights were both pushed to the brink of elimination, but how they arrived there is revealing.

In their last four games against the Vancouver Canucks, the Golden Knights posted a 3.45 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They sprayed shots on Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko and incessantly pecked away on the forecheck. Like a little boy whose older brother is hogging a toy, the Canucks had to find different moments in the action where they could play with the puck, too.

In their first three games, the Stars were infected with a joie de vivre, posting a 54.62% expected goals and an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 2.06. Then things went haywire.

The Stars were porous in their last four games, allowing Colorado a 2.96 expected goals against per hour. The Stars’ offense dipped. Dallas initially found great success foiling Colorado with its forecheck and taking away speed in the neutral zone. But that ability disappeared from Game 4 onward, as the Avs started to shoot and retrieve the puck and hem the Stars in their own end. Dallas goaltender Anton Khudobin had a 0.81 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) in the second round. He did exactly enough for his team to squeak by.

It seems like a good bet that Vegas will reach three or more goals, but can the Stars get their offense going? I’m not so sure. In the second round, Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner had a 4.4 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Vegas also submitted a 1.62 expected goals against per 60 minutes, preventing Vancouver from manufacturing offense except off rare instances in which Vegas exhibited misbegotten puck management.

At -120 on DraftKings, the price on betting the under isn’t great, but when Vegas is winning this game 3-1 with less than five minutes left in the third period, you will be glad you did.

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Under 1.5 for Dallas (+240)

The Canucks’ ascension was partly a surprise, but it also makes sense. Vancouver’s top-six forwards and defenseman Quinn Hughes are dynamic and highly-skilled. With intermittent streaks of scoring and the dazzling goaltending of Thatcher Demko, it nearly toppled Vegas.

However, if you look at the numbers for the Canucks’ top players, they are dreadful. Bo Horvat had the best expected goals against Vegas and finished at 36.62%. Elias Pettersson, an incandescent talent, had a 33.60% expected goals. Despite front-loading the forwards and trying different permutations, Canucks coach Travis Green could never find a line that could consistently dent the Golden Knights at 5-on-5.

Unlike Vancouver, the Stars crowdsource their scoring at 5-on-5, and in Game 7, it was the Joel Kiviranta-Roope Hintz-Denis Gurianov line that excelled. Assuming coach Bowness keeps that tripartite together, they are going to face either Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb or Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez.

Either one of Vegas’ defensive duos could render an unfortunate outcome for Dallas. Against Vancouver, Schmidt and McNabb finished with an expected goals of 62.30% in 95 minutes. Besting them by a smidge, Theodore and Martinez were at 74.40% in 97 minutes. Look closer at the Theodore and Martinez numbers, and they are terrifying. In 60 minutes, they are expected to generate four goals while only allowing one.

The Stars of late have only one forward line with a trace of potency. If Vegas can use two different defensive pairs to shut them down and force them into scramble mode in their own zone, it will fall on the Stars’ power play to create their scoring.

The sneakiest reason why Dallas crawled by Colorado was its power play. In their last four games, the Stars scored seven power-play goals. They have an arch-your-eyebrow 20.59 shooting percentage with an opposing player in the sin bin. Success on the man advantage was their stealth weapon of Round 2.

However, the Stars relying on their power play to keep the game competitive is a narrow path to victory given that Vegas is likely to dominate 5-on-5 play. Embracing a healthy skepticism about the Stars’ offensive capabilities in this series presents value with the under 1.5 goals at +240 on DraftKings.

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Reilly Smith to score (+205)

In the final three games against Vancouver, only Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore had more shots at 5-on-5 than Vegas forward Reilly Smith. Smith had a shot in Game 6 that beat Thatcher Demko but rang off the post.

Smith and offensive buddy Jonathan Marchessault were cooking in Round 2, with their line outshooting Vancouver by 19 shots. In this new series, Dallas defensemen Miro Heiskanen and Jamie Oleksiak will likely be utilized against Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, giving Smith and Marchessault the potential to create a lot of offensive opportunities against the Stars’ second defensive pairing of Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. In the last four games of the second-round series, the duo was on the ice for six Avalanche goals at 5-on-5.

Smith has the capacity to score in various ways in Game 1. He is prone to spearhead counterattack chances, especially on the penalty kill. He can flick a wrist shot past Khudobin or find a loose puck around the paint and poke it in.

Khudobin’s average goals distance suggests he has been capable of mostly papering over the Stars’ recent defensive issues with boxing out and preventing second-chance opportunities in the low slot. But as the first Vladislav Namestikov goal in Game 7 illustrated, the Stars can be flummoxed by a simple pick play just above the crease.

Smith is a skilled finisher around the crease, and he will surely prey on the Stars’ struggles by freeing his blade for deflections and hacking at loose pucks.

Three other Vegas players have lower odds, so you are getting +205 at a decent price on DraftKings. Smith was the Golden Knights’ second-best goal scorer from the regular season, and he is now in a matchup that should afford him several different avenues to score.

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