Friday Night Hockey Picks for March 31st
It’s the end of March which means playoffs are literally around the corner. The NHL is gearing up for a strong finish too. At this point of the season we usually have way more figured out and while the West is looking clearer and clearer every day the LA Kings had a huge win on Wednesday night to keep their playoff hopes alive.
In the East, there’s still a ton to figure out as anywhere from five to seven teams are still fighting for a shot at the playoffs or trying to climb over one another to get into a better seed before the playoffs start. There’s always some money to be made with desperate teams at the finish line and we’re here to break it all down. Let’s get to it!
- Columbus (n/a) at Chicago (n/a)
It’s an East vs. West showdown on Friday night when the Blue Jackets travel to Chicago to take on the Blackhawks. Columbus clinched a playoff spot a while back but still have their eyes set on first place in the Eastern Conference. They’re currently five points back of the Washington Capitals but have a game in hand. With Pittsburgh struggling behind them the Jackets only need to worry about what’s ahead.
And worry they should. Chicago waits for them at home with a 25-9-5 record in their own building and care coming off a massive 5-1 win over a very good Pittsburgh Penguins team on the road. They’re sitting in first place in the Western Conference by a comfortable margin thanks to the struggles of the Minnesota Wild and will likely have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs until the Stanley Cup Finals should they make it that far.
The Blackhawks have been nothing short of spectacular during the second half of the season and are rounding into the perennial Stanley Cup juggernaut we’ve come to expect in the NHL. Their combination of depth, skill and experience would make any team jealous and the Blue Jackets would kill to have the stability of the Blackhawks in their franchise. Still, Columbus is enjoying an incredible season and are coming in with a 7-2-1 record over their last ten games. They’ve won two in a row after easily handling the Buffalo Sabres but will be a tired group on Friday night. That’s because they need to play the pesky Hurricanes the night before, and on the road no less. Chicago will happily take on the tired Jackets and that could be enough to swing the game in their favor.
Chicago has turned up the heat on their offense in the second half of the season and after ranking as a middle of the pack unit they’ve now vaunted into the top ten in goals per game at 7th. They average 3.04 goals a game and have scored nine over their last two games. During their most recent ten game stretch the Blackhawks have averaged 3.4 goals a game and everyone on the team is finding ways to contribute.
They just piled five goals on the Penguins in their last outing and were led again by Patrick Kane who popped in two more assists to bring his point total up to 84 in 77 games. He has five points over his last five outings and while he’s unlikely to catch Connor McDavid for the scoring lead he’s giving it his best effort. Kane is currently just five points behind McDavid for the lead league and you can guarantee he’ll be trying to catch him down the stretch.
In Columbus, the offense has been a balanced attack all season long, and actually more successful than Chicago’s unit. The Blue Jackets rank 5th in goals per game with 3.13 but have struggled as of late. They’ve averaged just 2.5 goals over their last ten games and over their last four have scored just seven goals. Cam Atkinson has led the way for the Jackets all season with 61 points but has just one point over his last five games. He also leads the team in goals with 34 and may be breaking out of his mini slump after scoring against the Sabres in his last outing.
The Jackets need Nick Foligno to get going. He’s second on the team in goals with 24 but hasn’t scored in seven games or registered even a point in six. The 29 year old has been instrumental to the teams’ success all season long but if Columbus wants to make a run at Washington with their time running out Foligno will need to find his touch in a hurry.
Luckily for the Jackets their struggles on offense hardly matter. Thanks to their second overall ranked defense Columbus is happy to play close games and try to sneak out wins. They are limiting teams to an average of just 2.29 goals a game and their defense will be tested again with the high-flying Blackhawks bearing down on them.
David Savard has been the anchor for the Blue Jackets all season along the blueline and despite racking up just 22 points he actually leads the team in plus/minus rating at +28. That sort of hard-nosed defense is exactly what a playoff-bound team needs and Savard will get to sharpen his skill against Chicago on Friday. Joining him as instrumental pieces to Columbus this season is Zach Werenski. If it weren’t for the unbelievable depth of the rookie class this year up front Werenski might be staring at a Calder Trophy. The blue liner is just 19 years old but has a plus/minus of +21 and 47 points this season.
In Chicago defense has always been primary. The Blackhawks may not quiet be at the Jackets’ level this season but they’re still ranked 8th overall in average goals allowed per game at just 2.57 and just held the Pittsburgh Penguins to one goal. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are proven veterans capable of contributing a bit of offense as well when the time calls for it. They should have no problem keeping up with the Jackets’ forwards after Columbus played the night before.
Chicago is as deep as anyone along their defense, and healthy. With Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Niklas Hjalmarsson also joining Seabrook and Keith there may not be a deeper unit in all of hockey. The Blackhawks are fully healthy as well at just the right time and Columbus will find it difficult to rack up the goals if they can’t break by any of the aforementioned guys.
You can’t have a good defense without a good goalie and that’s certainly in the case in Columbus. Sergei Bobrovsky is on a crash course with the Vezina trophy and will likely get the night off against Carolina in order to stay fresh for Chicago. He was brilliant in his last win against the Sabres making 41 of 42 saves and now has a goals against average of 1.97 with a save percentage of .935. He’s up to 41 wins on the year and has flat-out been the best goalie in the NHL this season.
Opposite him is Corey Crawford who is coming off a very impressive performance after stopping 31 of 32 shots against the potent Penguins. Crawford needed a bounce back performance after two brutal outings in Florida and will be pumped to come back home and get some rest. He has a 2.53 goals against average with a .919 save percentage.
Patrick Kane against Cam Atkinson. Atkinson is not at the same level as Kane, but he’s just as important to his team and will have to match Chicago’s star point for point on Friday night. Atkinson has been struggling lately and a big match out West might be just what he needs to get going. As for Kane, number 88 is on cruise control right now and everyone else should just get out of his way. He’s determined to rack up the points before the season ends and Atkinson may have a tough time keeping up to him.
Chicago didn’t have their best road trip ever but capped it off with a huge win against Pittsburgh and are returning back home with confidence. They lost their last meeting against Columbus and will be itching to get revenge on their home ice. Take the Blackhawks on the spread against a tired Jackets club.
- Pittsburgh (EVEN) at New York (-130)
The Penguins are one of the best teams in hockey this season with a 46-19-11 record overall. They have 103 points and have easily clinched a playoff spot. With that being said they seem to be in a bit of a slump. Pittsburgh has lost four straight games after getting pummeled by the Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 in their last outing and may be bowing out of the President’s Trophy race any moment now.
They’re a full seven points behind Washington with just six games remaining on their schedule and now need to hit the road to take on the Rangers. New York has clinched a playoff spot as well in the second Wild Card position but it doesn’t look like they’ll be improving their seeding anytime soon. They’re a full six points behind the Penguins with just five games left on their slate and are a dismal 3-4-3 over their last ten games after another loss at the hands of the San Jose Sharks in overtime.
The Rangers are playing at home on Friday which should be a blessing but New York is just 19-16-3 in their own building this season. While that mark is respectable it pales in comparison to their incredible 27-10-2 record on the road this season. New York’s biggest problem lately has been defense. The Rangers allowed an average of 3.1 goals a game over their last ten contests and 11 goals over their last two games.
Their defense will be put to the test again on Friday against the league’s best offense. Pittsburgh has obviously struggled lately but they still average 3.41 goals a game and rank first in that department. Evgeni Malkin is still day to day with his injury and while he skated on Tuesday he did not suit up for the game against the Blackhawks on Wednesday. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he’ll give it a go on Friday night but make sure you check before game-time as his presence gives a huge advantage to the Penguins.
Phil Kessel against Henrik Lundqvist. Crosby is obviously the engine that drives the Pittsburgh offense, but if that’s the case than Kessel is the 5th gear. When he’s on the Pens feel unbeatable and he’ll need to hold his own with Malkin expected to miss another game. He has just two points over his last five games and hasn’t scored a goal since March 17th. It won’t be easy for him to break out of his slump against Lundqvist. The Rangers’ goalie is having a strong year after struggling early on and looks ready to take on any opponent.
The Penguins are getting great odds thanks to their long list of injuries and their recent slump. They’re also playing on the road though and New York has struggled a bit at home this season. Take Pittsburgh on the spread.
- New Jersey (+170) at New York (-210)
The Devils have been eliminated from the playoffs for quite some time now and currently sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 27-35-14 record this season. They’re coming off back to back overtime losses and are just 2-6-2 over their last ten games. Now they need to hit the road (albeit not very far) to take on an Islanders team that may soon be joining them on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
New York made an incredible mid-season charge when they fired their head coach and replaced him with Doug Weight but since then haven’t been able to stay consistent. They’re only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of this writing but were losing to the Flyers 5-2 while the teams they are chasing were all winning. Regardless of the outcomes the Islanders won’t be eliminated just yet and will have a great opportunity to pick up two points against the struggling Devils.
The Isles have found it hard to score goals at the worst possible time. They are coming off back to back one goal performances and their defense isn’t doing them any favors either. Their long charge back to relevancy may have finally caught up to them as the team is beginning to look more and more tired down the stretch. Thomas Greiss was incredible for the Islanders when they made their comeback but has gone cold recently. He got lit up by the Flyers in his last outing but will likely get a chance to redeem himself on Friday night against the struggling Devils.
John Tavares against Taylor Hall. If the Islanders are going to squeak into the postseason it’s going to be because of their best player. Tavares has carried this team all season and leads the team with 65 points. He’ll be up against Hall who has had a nice comeback year for the Devils but is still struggling to stay consistent with a lack of talent around him.
The Islanders are playing their second game in as many nights but they have a real chance to right the ship and get back into the Wild Card race with a win against the lowly Devils. New Jersey has played some decent hockey at home this year but with nothing left to play for the Islanders should be able to take advantage. Take New York on the spread.
- St. Louis (-240) at Colorado (+190)
The Blues have won two straight after a 3-1 victory over the lowly Coyotes and get an even easier foe on Friday night when they had to Colorado to take on the Avalanche. Considering St. Louis is trying to hold off Nashville for the third spot in the Central Division before the playoffs begin they’re more than happy that they get to play against Colorado.
The Avalanche’s struggles have been well-documented this season but in case you needed a refresher on just how tough of a season it’s beam for Colorado here you go. They’re dead last in the NHL with a 20-53-3 record. They’ve lost seven straight games and are a dismal 1-9-0 over their last ten games. Their goal differential of -108 is one of the worst we’ve seen in recent memory and they still have six games left.
The Blues on the other hand are rolling. They’re 8-1-1 over their last ten games and have completely turned their season around despite trading away one of their best defensemen at the blueline in Kevin Shattenkirk. Vladimir Tarasenko continues to put his team on his shoulders down the stretch and he’s been nothing short of spectacular for St. Louis this season. His 69 points lead the team by a margin of 18 and he’s recorded six points over his last five games including back to back goals.
Now he gets to go up against the worst team in hockey and try to create even more separation between his team and the Predators. St Louis has won seven of their last ten against Colorado including five straight. The Avalanche are starting to shut down players for the season and experiment with new lines and younger faces and that’s just what the Blues need to rack up an important win with the playoffs around the corner.
Jake Allen against Calvin Pickard. At the end of the day, if a goalie is incredible he can often steal a win for his team no matter how poorly they’ve been playing. That’ what Pickard will try and do for the Avalanche on Friday night but it won’t be easy. Colorado’s goalie gave up four goals in his last game and is now riding a five game losing streak with his save percentage being under .900 during that span.
Opposite him is Allen who has turned it on for St. Louis lately. He has found his consistency and is capable of turning in a solid performance against a lesser team. He just won his seventh straight game against Arizona and Colorado has been playing at a much lower level this season.
We don’t like to see teams struggle but that’s the reality for the Avalanche right now and they can’t be trusted this late into the season. Take the Blues on the spread getting decent odds on the road.
- San Jose (+110) at Calgary (-140)
The Sharks finally snapped an ugly stretch with a big overtime win against the New York Rangers but are still just 3-7-0 over their last ten games. They watched Anaheim overtake them for the Pacific Division lead earlier in the week and are now in danger of falling to third in the division with the way the Oilers are playing behind them. While the Sharks gave up four goals it was good to see them find the back of the net five separate times.
San Jose had been struggling to score since then. In their six games prior they had totaled just seven goals and failed to score more than two goals in any of those games. Brent Burns has been incredible for the Sharks this season and despite being a defenseman leads the team in points with 73. As strong as he’s played this season he was in a major goal slump before finding the back of the net against New York. Prior to that game it had been 16 straight contests since Burns found the back of the net. If he’s about to break out of his slump Calgary and the rest of the league need to be worried.
The Flames aren’t too worried about anything right now though. Calgary turned their season around in the second half and look poised to make the playoffs. They lost 4-1 to a desperate LA Kings team in their last outing but are still 6-4-0 over their last ten games and just three points behind Edmonton and San Jose for the third spot in the Pacific Division.
Calgary let in an uncharacteristic four goals against the Kings but we expect their defense to be a little stronger against San Jose on Friday night. The Flames were coming off back to back games where they allowed just two goals and have been turning in a team effort at every position as of late. Mark Giordano is quietly one of the best defensemen in all of hockey again this year and Burns and the rest of the Sharks should have trouble getting by him on Friday night.
Sean Monahan against Joe Pavelski. Monahan may not be a household name but he’s got the talent to be one in a hurry. He leads the team in goals with 26 and is riding a three game point streak with two goals and three assists during that span. He’s come out of seemingly nowhere to carry the Flames towards the playoffs but will have a tough test in Pavelski on Friday. The Sharks’ forward plays great two-way hockey and knows how to create some offense as well with his 65 points this season.
The Flames have won two of their last three against the Sharks and are a strong home team with a 23-16-0 record this season. The Sharks are struggling despite the win against the Rangers and are just 19-16-3 on the road this year. Take Calgary at home on the moneyline in what should be a close game.
- LA (+120) at San Jose (-150)
The clock keeps ticking on the Kings’ season and yet LA refuses to give up. They’re still a full ten points out of a playoff spot but have six games left. They need to win every single game to even have a hope of getting in and the long road to the finish will start on Friday night against Vancouver.
The Kings have all the talent in the world but just haven’t been able to make it all click this year with any consistency. LA is coming off one of their best wins in a 4-1 victory over the Flames when they played a physical style, crashed the net, picked up some fights and scored some timely goals. As strong as they looked on Wednesday they just haven’t given that effort enough times this season which is why they’re likely to miss the playoffs.
They should be able to pick up a win on Friday though. Vancouver has long been eliminated from the postseason and the Canucks have lost two straight games after falling to the Ducks 4-1 in their last outing. They’re just 2-7-1 over their last ten games and continue have trouble generating any sort of offense. With their fate sealed you can expect to see some of their vets rest down the stretch but that doesn’t mean the rest of the team won’t give it their all.
You can expect Bo Horvat to be going at full speed on Friday and that could cause some problems for the Kings. Horvat is just 21 years old but leads the team in points with 50. He has just three points over his last five games but he’s capable of a big outburst at any moment and the Kings will need to be aware of him on the ice at all times.
Jerome Iginla against Alexander Edler. Iginla had a goal and an assist against the Flames in his last outing but his fight might have been the most impressive part. He sparked the Kings to a win and the vet isn’t ready to give up on the playoffs just yet. He’ll be up against Edler who is the Canucks’ strongest defensemen but that shouldn’t deter “Iggy” too much.
We know, we know, we’re going to go against our normal advice here, but take the Kings. LA is going to drag this out as long as they can and that means a win against the Canucks on Friday night. Take them on the spread.
- Washington (-280) at Arizona (+230)
Our last game of the night is also our biggest mismatch. The Capitals come into Arizona as the number one team in all of hockey. They just handled the Avalanche and will get to take on another team that has struggled this season in the Coyotes. Arizona has put up way more of a fight than Colorado this season but the results just haven’t been there. The Coyotes are 27-41-9 this season and have now lost four straight games after dropping their last outing to the Blues 4-1. Arizona has played much better at home this season than they have on the road with a 16-17-5 record in their own building compared to an 11-24-4 record away from it this season. That’s good news for the Coyotes who will get to be at home on Friday night.
Regardless of where they play they won’t get to change their opponent and that’s bad news for the Coyotes. Washington is finishing off their season strong with a 7-2-1 record over their last ten games that includes a six game win streak. They’re pulling away from the rest of the NHL for the President’s Trophy and will likely have home ice advantage throughout the duration of the playoffs regardless of how far they go.
Alex Ovechkin has woken up from his mini slump in a major way and that’s huge news for the Caps. Ovie was held off the score sheet in his last game but racked up a hat trick in the game before and now has 33 goals on the season. He has seven points over his last five games and seems to be picking up steam at the perfect time
Braden Holtby against Max Domi. It looks like Sergei Bobrovsky is going to win the Vezina Trophy thanks to his strong play in net for Columbus but Holtby will have something to say about that before all is said and done. Holtby has been phenomenal for Washington this season. He let in four goals against the Wild in his last outing but is still 40-11-6 on the year with a 2.04 goals against average and a .926 save percentage. If he can really shut the door against the young and talented Domi and the rest of the Coyotes he could challenge Bobrovsky for the award down the stretch.
Take the Capitals on the spread getting decent odds on the road. This game could be closer than many expect but Arizona has little to play for and is struggling badly right now.