With the qualifying and round robin round play of the Stanley Cup playoffs having been completed, now we have moved on to the NHL Playoff format that we are all familiar with.
24 teams started play in Toronto and Edmonton, but eight teams have already been sent packing, including the two teams who call the bubble cities home.
What makes the NHL playoffs such an exciting tournament is how one player can have such a huge impact on the game: a goaltender getting hot and turning into a brick, a forward scoring with seemingly every shot he puts on net, or a defenseman who is shutting down the key offensive threats of his opponents. One player finding his groove at the right time could be the difference between a team advancing in the playoffs or heading home.
So who are the most important players left in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs? We'll identify the most important player on each of the eight teams left in the Eastern Conference.
Shayne Gostisbehere - D
Just a few years ago nobody thought Shayne Gostisbehere would be where is now. Gostisbehere scored 17 goals in the 2015-16 season, finishing as runner-up in Calder Memorial Trophy voting, which is awarded annually to the NHL Rookie of the Year. The defenseman went on to score 13 goals in the 2017-18 season, but in the two years since Gostisbehere has only scored 14 goals for the Flyers.
There was talk of trading Gostisbehere before the trade deadline, but the defenseman has had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, which made teams hesitant to pull the trigger on bringing him. It looks like Philadelphia will benefit from their patience with Gostisbehere, as he is now healthy for the playoff run. Gostisbehere notched two assists in the only round robin game he played in, which was a win over Tampa Bay.
The Flyers are loaded on offense and defense, so it's not like they need Gostisbehere to be a top-line defenseman. But, his presence will do wonders as adds to the tremendous depth that has helped Philadelphia to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. If Gostisbehere returns to the form he showed earlier in his career, it will be extremely tough to bounce the Flyers from the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov - RW
Last year's playoffs were a nightmare for Tampa Bay, as the Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. A major reason for the meltdown by the Presidents Trophy winners was the disappearance of Nikita Kucherov, the league's MVP last season. Kucherov tallied just two assists and was suspended for Game 3 after boarding Markus Nutivaara in Game 2.
The Lightning again have drawn the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, but they are already found more success than last year. Tampa Bay won Game 1 3-2 in quintuple overtime, with Kucherov notching two assists in the victory. Prior to last year's playoff dud, Kucherov had scored 29 goals in 62 playoff games, so there's no question he can produce when the spotlight is on. With Kucherov engaged and creating scoring opportunities, it's going to be hard for the Lightning to be beaten four times in a seven-game series.
Braden Holtby - G
Washington Capitals G Braden Holtby Nick Wass/AP/Shutterstock
It would be easy to tag Alex Ovechkin as the most important player on the Washington Capitals, but the Capitals will need one player to step up even more this year. Goaltender Braden Holtby has had a rough go of it since leading Washington to the Stanley Cup two years ago. The goalie has averaged three goals per game allowed in each of the last two years, which just isn't going to cut it in the playoffs.
Holtby has shown some promise early in these playoffs at least, with his goals against average below two after two round robin games. The goaltending position got a little more complicated for the Capitals during the shutdown, as backup Ilya Samsonov was injured in an off-ice incident in Russia. That leaves rookie Vitek Vanecek as the backup, which means the Capitals likely won't pull Holtby if he is struggling, unless absolutely necessary.
Travis Pastrnak - RW
Boston Bruins RW David PastrnakMaddie Meyer - Getty Images
The only thing that has slowed David Pastrnak down this year has been the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 70 games this year, Pastrnak potted 48 goals and dished out 47 assists, but he somehow wasn't named as finalist for this season's NHL MVP. Pastrnak certainly has something to prove, especially after two of the three MVP finalists have already been bounced from the playoffs.
The Bruins really struggled in the round robin, losing all three games to drop them to the fourth seed after finishing the regular season with the highest point total. It's no coincidence that Pastrnak didn't record a point in any of the three round robin games. Pastrnak has already started off Round 1 with a bang, recording a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win in overtime over the Carolina Hurricanes. If Boston wants to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, they'll need Pastrnak to channel his regular season form.
Dougie Hamilton - D
The Hurricanes took a serious hit in January when Dougie Hamilton suffered a broken leg. At the time many thought Hamilton's season was over, but we also had no idea how hard the COVID-19 pandemic would hit this country, pausing the NHL season for four months. Prior to the injury, Hamilton had scored 14 goals and was credited with 26 assists in 47 games.
Hamilton was able to return to the ice for Game 1 of Carolina's series against Boston, logging nearly 27 minutes of ice time in the double overtime loss. While Carolina does have a solid group of defenseman with guys like Jaccob Slavin and Jake Gardiner, they don't provide the same type of offensive skills that Hamilton does. If Hamilton is able to return to form quickly, the Hurricanes will push the team that swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
New York Islanders
Adam Pelech - D
Much like Carolina, the New York Islanders have an injured defenseman returning who could make all the difference. In early January it was announced that Adam Pelech would miss the rest of the season due to an achilles injury. Luckily for Pelech the playoffs were delayed until August, allowing him extra time to recover.
Prior to Pelech getting injured, the Islanders were 28-11-3. Once Pelech as sidelined, the Islanders were just 10-13-7, and 0-3-4 in the seven games prior to the league shutdown. Had action not have been paused, the Islanders likely would have missed the playoffs.
The return of Pelech couldn't have come at a better time, as he'll be helping to try and slow down Alex Ovechkin and the potent Washington attack. Now that Pelech is bak to pair with Ryan Pulock and steady the blue line of the Islanders, New York has a lot better shot to upset the Capitals and move on in the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones - D
Columbus Blue Jackets D Seth JonesAaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports
The third, and final, returning defenseman on this list is Seth Jones. The seventh-year pro took a puck to the ankle in a game against Colorado in early February, resulting in a fractured ankle. Including the game Jones was injured in, Columbus lost seven straight games and won just three of their final 15 contests before the NHL shutdown.
The impact of Jones (when he is healthy) is immeasurable. In the five overtime thriller against Tampa Bay in Game 1, Jones was on the ice for 65 minutes. Jones gives the Blue Jackets a sense of calm on defense, something that was obviously missing when he was injured in February. Columbus can now field one of the best defensive combinations in the NHL, with 20-goal scorer Zach Werenski pairing with Jones on the blue line.
Carey Price - G
If Montreal is going to have any shot of taking down the top-ranked Philadelphia Flyers, they'll need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head. Price and the Canadiens have already taken down one team from Pennsylvania this year, as Montreal defeated Pittsburgh in four games in the qualifying round, with Price allowing just 1.67 goals per game and saving nearly 95% of the shots Pittsburgh took in the series.
With the Canadiens being rather limited on offense, they'll desperately need Price to stand tall and keep them in the game. Having to carry the load isn't anything new for Price though, as he has led the NHL in minutes played in each of the last two years. While Philadelphia has a solid offense, with nine players scoring at least 10 goals this season, Price has shown before that he can take over a series and will his team to victory.
It's another eventful week in the NFL.
Four teams -- the Jets, Falcons, Saints, and 49ers -- are the first teams to get a bye week. After Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers narrowly escaped Thursday Night Football with a 28-22 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning Super Bowl champs are the first team with five wins in the league. Who will join them on Sunday? We know that we'll get at least a second five-win team since the 4-1 Ravens are hosting the 4-1 Chargers. That is going to be an epic battle, so let's start with that clash of AFC contenders. Welcome to our Week 6 NFL Best Bets.
Playing on the road is a difficult task for any team, but if any team can escape with a victory, it's Justin Herbert and the Chargers. This isn't the Chargers of the last decade. This team is winning the close battles. Herbert is playing at an MVP level this season and already has led this team to big-time wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns -- two of the top teams in the AFC. This L.A. team is deep at the skill positions, can rush the passer, has an improved offensive line and a great young coach. What's not to like?
All that said, Lamar Jackson seems to be playing as he did during his 2019 MVP campaign. Not to mention, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown is actually catching passes. He eclipsed 100 yards last week and scored two touchdowns (including the game-winning catch in overtime). Simply put, this is a tough team to bet against. It did take last-second heroics for the Ravens to beat the winless Lions and a pretty pedestrian Colts team. Overall, Baltimore hasn't faced a test like this yet this season. Take the points and the better overall squad. Chargers may win this game, but if they don't, they are not going to lose by more than a field goal.
PICK: Chargers +3.5
It's been a tough start to the season for the Chiefs. They had great odds to return to the Super Bowl and are now last in the AFC West heading into Week 16 with a 2-3 record. They desperately need this game. This is a great opportunity for the Chiefs to prove they are still elite by defeating a team that made the postseason last year on the road. The Chiefs are going to turn it around against a Washington defense that is allowing the sixth-most passing yards and second-most passing touchdowns this season. Patrick Mahomes is going to blow up. Tyreek Hill is going to dominate. Travis Kelce is going to continue to provide a steady source of receptions down the middle of the field. As long as the Chiefs' offensive line holds against Chase Young, it's going to be a long day for Washington's defense. Betting on Mahomes to right the ship isn't a really difficult choice.
PICK: Chiefs -6.5
Yes, the Texans are one of the worst teams in the league. Betting on them on the road against a divisional rival might seem crazy at first. However, the Texans are 7-3 against the spread as underdogs in their last 10 games. Plus, the Colts are emotional after completely giving away the game against the Ravens in which they blew a 22-3 lead late in the game. This is going to cause a bit of a hangover in that locker room. When New England suffered a terrible loss against Tom Brady and the Bucs, the Texans managed to cover the spread the following week. Look for history to repeat itself. Texans coach David Culley has Houston playing hard in spite of its lack of talent and quarterback Davis Mills appeared to take a step forward last week against the Pats. Houston has played pretty good pass defense, too. The Texans have allowed only seven passing TDs this season.
PICK: Texans +9
Sunday night will be an interesting matchup to watch as Geno Smith will make his first start in four years as the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. I hate betting on Ben Roethlisberger, but it's hard to envision the Seahawks covering the spread without the services of Russell Wilson. And as much as I think Big Ben should hang up his cleats, you have to give him credit for the way he dominated a solid Broncos defense last week. Roethlisberger looked better than he did earlier in the season and was able to get the ball to his playmakers -- Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and running back Najee Harris. Seattle's defense is one of the worst in the league and their secondary is even worse than their front seven. Look for the Steelers to light up Seattle in the passing game.
PICK: Steelers -5
Both of these offenses can put up a lot of points, though they go about it very differently. The Browns are a run-heavy team, and even though they will be without the services of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt is more than capable of getting the job done. Meanwhile, Arizona's offense runs through electric quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray is able to move the chains with his legs but he isn't afraid to toss the ball either. He loves getting his guys involved and his weapons are elite in DeAndre Hopkins, Rondale Moore, and Christian Kirk.
The Browns are coming off an 89-point slugest with the Chargers and hit the OVER in their other game against a high-end offense in a 33-29 loss to the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have scored 30-plus points in four of five games this year. Smash the OVER.
PICK: OVER 49.5
Week 2 of the NFL was full of breakout performances, thrilling finishes and potentially the start of the Justin Fields era in the NFC North as the Bears' win over the Bengals finds them in first place in the division.
We cap off the week with a Monday Night Football showdown between the Packers and the Lions with the winner finding themselves tied for first in the North. The Packers put up an absolute dud of a performance last week against the Saints in Week 1 while the Lions looked surprisingly effective while playing catch-up against the West-leading 49ers. The expectations for these two teams couldn't have been further apart coming into the season but with matching 0-1 starts on the books, I think there are a couple of interesting props and roster construction angles to exploit.
NFL DFS Showdown Picks
*Prices are from DraftKings
Captain: TE T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions ($9,600) ($14,400)
I'm normally not a fan of playing a tight end in the captain spot, but T.J. Hockenson is not your average tight end. He finished 2020 with an elite 18% target share in the Lions' offense and picked up right where he left off in Week 1, finishing with an 18.2% share on 50 routes run last week. Hockenson has always carried premium TD upside as a red-zone target but what was most encouraging about last week was that he ran nearly 55% of his routes out of the slot, leaving him a matchup against Chandon Sullivan, who's allowing a 67% catch rate in his coverage. In a game where the Lions are projected to be down early, expect Hockenson to get fed once again. His red-zone utilization gives him enough juice to take the captain's chair in my builds.
Core Consideration: QB Jared Goff, Detroit Lions ($10,000)
Two principles I take into Showdown slates apply to this play. Generally speaking, if I have a pass-catcher as my captain, I'm finding a way to get their QB into a flex spot. The second is that your build needs to tell a story. Mine is that the Packers come out with something to prove after getting embarrassed in Week 1 and that we'll likely see upwards of 50 pass attempts from Jared Goff as he attempts to mount a comeback. Goff is a surprisingly effective passer when getting good protection and this unit gave him a clean pocket on 86.7% of snaps last week. Expect that to continue tonight as Goff will continue to feast in garbage time.
Contrarian Play: WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers ($2,000)
I still chuckle at the thought of the return of Randall Cobb being on the short-list of demands from Aaron Rodgers in the midst of his holdout. I do, however, think there is something to be said about the importance of chemistry between a quarterback and his receiver and I expect that in a typical game (which Week 1 was not), Aaron Rodgers is going to find his spots to get Cobb involved. In a game script that figures to have the Packers up by a healthy margin, not many are going to look at the tertiary passing options for Green Bay and I think a $2,000 Randall Cobb could sneak in a handful of receptions at single-digit ownership..
Salary Relief: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions ($2,400)
This one fits perfectly into my narrative for the game as well. In a game where the Lions are likely to flirt with 50+ pass attempts and coming off a week where St. Brown ran routes on 75% of the team's passing plays, I will be overweight on Amon-Ra tonight. Lining up in the slot on 74.5% of plays means St. Brown will primarily see coverage from Chandon Sullivan, the most favorable of the options GB lines up in their defensive secondary. Expect St. Brown to see his target volume increase tonight. If Detroit can be more effective in getting to the red zone, he carries decent scoring upside with the way he's utilized in this offense. Plus, who doesn't love the extra motivation of playing against their big bro?
Monday Night Football Best Bets
Taking a look at the wagering side of this game; before we determine anything else we must ask ourselves what we think of these Green Bay Packers. I tend to look at last week's performance as the exception and not the rule. With that being the case, I am laying the 11.5 points and taking GB tonight. Over the past six seasons, oddsmakers have been fairly sharp when it comes to these larger spreads and NFL teams cover double-digit spreads more than 55% of the time. The total for tonight is sitting at 48.5 and given the somewhat surprising ability of the Lions to make up ground last week, I am confidently on the "over" side of that line.
Picks: Packers -11.5, OVER 48.5 points
Taking a look at the prop market, I am again mainly investing in the "GB Blowout" narrative:
D'Andre Swift: OVER 28.5 Receiving Yard
Coming off a 65-yard performance in a very similar game script, this one feels like a no-brainer. Swift averages nearly 8 yards per reception so this really boils down to whether you think he catches more than 3 passes. I certainly do and I'm confidently on the OVER for this prop. FanDuel is currently carrying the best odds at -110.
T.J. Hockenson: Anytime TD
I'm not the biggest fan of these "to score" props, but I'll break from the norm with this one. I am projecting the Lions to at least have a go at it in this game and there simply isn't a scenario where that doesn't involve a score for Hockenson. +220 odds at FanDuel sort of feels like stealing given that I see this game going over the 48.5 total.
AJ Dillon | UNDER 8.5 Rushing Attempts
I know that the betting public is forecasting a fairly comfortable win for the Packers, but let's not get carried away. AJ Dillon would have to nearly double his career average for carries to get to this number. Plus, it's a bit unlikely that this game gets so far out of reach that Green Bay brings in their backups. Even last week when they did bring in the second-stringers, Dillon only saw 4 carries. I'm expecting Aaron Jones to have a monster day on the ground, as evidenced by my Saturday article.
Week 1 is in the books and it's time to move on to the best bets in Week 2.
If you listened to my article earlier this week, you would have started 1-0 for taking the Giants with the points against Washington in that thriller of a matchup Thursday night. Now, let's dive into Week 2's best NFL bets.
Tennessee Titans/Seattle Seahawks Over 54
The Seahawks' offense was high-flying in the first half last week. Because the Colts never really threatened the outcome of the game, the Seahawks were able to take the air out of the ball and finish the game with an easy win while only scoring seven in the second half. While both the Titans' defense and offense looked atrocious, expect Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry to have big bounce-back weeks and make this an epic high-scoring game. This has all the makings for a shootout in which both teams put up 30-plus points.
Cincinnati Bengals +2.5 @ Chicago Bears
Until that Monday night game, the Bengals had the honor of winning the craziest Week 1 game over the Vikings in overtime. The Bears' defense, which is supposed to be their strength, looked awful against the Rams, including one of the most blown coverages you'll ever see on Cooper Kupp's long touchdown. It was simply an awful week for the Bears. I don't think it gets any better until they remove Dalton and promote Justin Fields. If they don't do that prior to game time, the Bengals will run away with this one.
Los Angeles Rams -3.5 @ Indianapolis Colts
Coming out of Week 1 the Rams looked great on both sides of the ball. Matthew Stafford had a great first game, going 20 for 26 with three touchdowns. The Colts... They didn't look that great on either side of the ball. While Carson Wentz's overall numbers didn't look bad, most of the yardage and one of his two TDs came in the fourth quarter as they were chasing from two or more scores back, never actually threatening to win the game. I'm leaning towards the Rams winning this in a blowout and would consider alternate spreads.
Arizona Cardinals -3.5 vs. Minnesota Vikings
Kyler Murray appears to be a man on a mission to avenge last season's bitter ending after absolutely torching the Tennesee Titans in Nashville. The Vikings' defense, who hasn't been as formidable as years past, is going to have their hands full with Kyler. Last week they allowed Joe Burrow to complete nearly 80% of his passes, and Burrow isn't a threat to run nor has a receiver as talented as DeAndre Hopkins. If the Vikings offense doesn't step up and make this a shootout, things could get ugly in Phoenix.
Dallas Cowboys + 3.5 @ Los Angeles Chargers
Dak Prescott looked great in Week 1 and if there were any issues with his shoulder after throwing 58 times, he had 10 days to get healed up again and ready for the Chargers. I can almost guarantee, whenever the Cowboys go to play either Los Angeles team in their stadium, that there will be more Cowboys fans than LA fans. So while they aren't playing in Jerry World, they'll have more fan support. My concern for Justin Herbert and the Chargers is their efficiency in the red zone. His most potent weapons in Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler become less effective as they get closer to the goal line. That leaves Jared Cook and Mike Williams as your bigger bodies in the red zone, which isn't ideal. The Cowboys have a decent chance to win this one outright, but you can take the points for some cushion.
- Cowboys ML (+160)
- Titans +6.5 (-105)
- Steelers ML (-225)
- Rams -3.5 (-110)
Five Props To Consider
- Calvin Ridley OVER 6.5 receptions (+115)
- Tyrod Taylor OVER 34.5 Pass Attempts (-105)
- Aaron Jones OVER 88.5 combined yards (-115)
- Nick Chubb OVER 17.5 carries (-120)
- James Robinson OVER 9.5 carries (-125)
All five of these props have an excellent chance at hitting. I like the idea of wagering a three-leg prop parlay with the last three props listed (Jones, Chubb and J-Rob). Thanks me on Monday.