After diving into the most important player on each of the eight Eastern Conference teams left in the NHL Playoffs, we now turn our attention to the eight teams left in the Western Conference.
So far the action has been hot in Edmonton for the qualifying round, round robin play, and the early parts of the first round, and doesn't look to cool off anytime soon.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner - G
Las Vegas unknowingly hit a jackpot when they acquired Robin Lehner. Not only did the Golden Knights acquire a goaltender with some playoff experience, but little did they know that they would be bringing in a player who had spent most of the season on the team that they would go up against in the first round of the playoffs. Lehner went 16-10-5 in 31 starts for Chicago this year, and the Swedish goalie has been even better for Las Vegas, winning all of his seven starts in the regular season and playoffs.
The Golden Knights entered the season with three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury at goalie, but they knew they would have to upgrade the position if they wanted to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, like in their inaugural season in the NHL in 2018. Lehner doesn't have the titles that Fleury does, but the Golden Knights feel like Lehner is the best option to keep the opposition of the board. So far that decision has paid off with interest for Las Vegas.
Nathan MacKinnon - C
The first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft is essentially the offense of the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon finished the regular season with 35 goals and 93 points. By comparison, no other Colorado player totaled more than 50 points this season. MacKinnon's performance was so impressive, it earned him a spot as finalist in the race for the NHL MVP award. MacKinnon is the only one of the three finalists still left in the playoffs.
If the Avalanche didn't have MacKinnon on their roster, they certainly wouldn't be sitting in the position that they are currently in. MacKinnon opened the scoring in game 2 on Friday afternoon with his second goal of the playoffs. The Avalanche would go on to beat Arizona, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Last year MacKinnon totaled six goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games, and he looks primed to lead Colorado to an even deeper run in the playoffs this season.
St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko - RW
St. Louis Blues RW Vladimir TarasenkoJeff Curry - USA TODAY Sports
One of the key members of the St. Louis Blues team that won the Stanley Cup was winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The Russian scored 11 goals in 26 playoff games last season, helping the Blues to their first title since 1970. The 16th pick in the 2010 draft has been incredibly balanced throughout his NHL career, scoring 214 goals and dishing out 214 assists in 507 games.
Tarasenko's regular season was cut short early on, with a shoulder injury sidelining the winger after just 10 games. Tarasenko might have returned for the playoffs had the NHL not had to pause the season, but there was no guarantee where Tarasenko's health would be. With a couple extra months to recover, Tarasenko was ready to hit the ice at full speed.
So far Tarasenko has been a bit rusty, failing to record a point in three playoff games. During the regular season, only three St. Louis players scored at least 20 goals, which makes Tarasenko's return to the lineup even more important, especially since they have to take on the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. If Tarasenko can find his rhythm in the offense, the Blues could make another deep playoff run.
Bo Horvat - C
Vancouver Canucks C Bo HorvatDan Toulgoet - Vancouver Courier
Vancouver is an up-and-coming team, and they might have just found their leader in the playoffs. Canucks like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes may get more attention, but there might not be a hotter hockey player out there right now than Bo Horvat. The center scored two goals and was credited with two assists in Vancouver's four qualifying round games against Minnesota. Horvat has been even better in the first two games against St. Louis, recording four goals, including the winner in overtime in game 2.
Horvat has always had a knack for finding the back of the net, scoring at least 20 goals in each of the last four seasons, but the Ontario native has really caught fire inside the bubble in Edmonton. Now with Vancouver just a couple wins away from the second round, it'll be interested to see if Horvat can keep his hot stretch of play going. If Horvat doesn't cool off, Vancouver will be a tougher out in the playoffs than some were expecting the Canucks to be.
Mark Giordano - D
Stat-wise, Giordano fell off a little bit during the regular season, but it doesn't mean the captain of the Flames became any less important to the team. After winning the Norris Trophy last year as the league's best defenseman, Giordano only recorded five goals and 31 points this year in 60 games, marking the first time since the 2012-13 season in which he failed to reach double digits in goal tallies.
Much like Eastern Conference blue line counterparts, Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton, Giordano is the heart of the Flames. While youngsters Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Guadreau receive most of Calgary's headlines, Giordano is the calming force on defense that has propelled the Flames to a 2-1 series lead on Dallas in the first round.
Darcy Kuemper - G
Looking at the Arizona roster, it's probably a bit of a surprise that Kuemper is the Coyote identified as the most important player, especially with guys like Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Dig a little deeper and it's easy to see why. Kessel is in the latter half of his career, and not producing quite like he did in Pittsburgh. Hall was traded from New Jersey earlier this year, so he is still trying to adjust to his new teammates and style of play.
With Arizona sneaking into the playoffs, they'll likely have to play some of the best teams in the conference if they want to make a deep run. Kuemper came up huge against Nashville in the qualifying round, recording at least 40 saves in each of Arizona's three wins in the series. The first round matchup against Colorado has proven a little tougher, with the Avalanche winning both games, but Kuemper is still performing at a high level. If the Coyotes are going to comeback against a very talented Colorado team, it will be because Kuemper stood on his head between the pipes.
Jonathan Toews - C
Chicago Blackhawks C Jonathan ToewsJerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports
You name it on the ice, and Jonathan Toews has probably done it. The captain of the Blackhawks is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, was playoff MVP in 2010, and has made the All-Star Game on five separate occasions. Even though this is season 13 for Toews in the NHL, he has shown so far in the playoffs he is still one of the best in the league.
Coming into the qualifying round, it looked like Chicago's backs were against the wall, since the Blackhawks were matched up with Edmonton. With the NHL's Western Conference bubble being in Edmonton, the Oilers had a bit of a home-ice advantage. Add in the Oilers having young stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and it was hard to see Chicago advancing.
Toews showed that even though he has a few years on the Edmonton stars, that he is still dangerous, scoring two goals and recording three assists in the four-game series victory for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane may light up the scoresheet more than Toews, but there is no doubt the captain is what makes Chicago tick. As long as Toews is on the ice, the Blackhawks are never truly out of it.
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.