There are four teams playing tonight that could just very well be a preview of this year’s Eastern and Western conference finals. In the West we have two formidable powerhouse teams who have a string defense and potent offense to match, and in the East there are two high-flying teams that hardly anyone can keep up with, let alone catch. Tonight should be a great night to put some bets down and get your game on!
Can you believe it’s been eight months since they played their crazy seven-game playoff series? Check out the standings again and it’s deja vu as both the Jets and Preds are still sitting pretty atop the Central Division. The visible difference is that Winnipeg has 62 points, and the Preds have 60, but that could change with a win tonight and they could just become even.
They both have 10 points up on the third-place Colorado Avalanche, so it’s pretty clear after the halfway mark of the season that they will now duke it out for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Tonight most is a preview of a playoff rematch? That’s what the players think anyways:
“We’re both in the same division and we compete to do well in this division,” Jets winger Brandon Tanev said to local media. “Last year in the playoffs, that escalated as well.” Tonight we can expect a lot of speed, big hits and some anger since these two have some history.
“I don’t think you need to be a stats person to know (the Predators) are a really good team and they are our No.1 opponent in our division right now,” defenceman Dmitry Kulikov said. “So, just going back to last year we’ve had some really good games against them.” And tonight should not be any different.
Talking about Kulikov, he’s been playing great recently and has been a nice surprise for the Jets and some extra firepower. He’s a veteran defenceman who’s shown some offensive upside when he bursts out on the rush, and showed his prowess in the game against the Vegas Golden Knights. No one was sure he would even make an impact since coming into this year off back surgery, to remedy an injury which he lost two previous seasons over.
“He’s a much better player in my mind than last year because he was coming off almost an entire year of playing with (the injury),” Jets coach Paul Maurice said.
“He worked really hard this summer. And then there was some, I don’t know if anger’s the right word, but he seemed when he got hurt again this year he pushed really hard, came back earlier and was very, very determined. So I would agree there is a difference between his play right now and his play in the past. And we hope he continues it.”
In their last 10 outings, the Predators are 6-2-2, while the Jets are 6-4 but they’ve won their last three games so are on a roll.
Pick: Jets win, 6 plus goals
Moneyline: Winnipeg Jets +145 / Nashville Predators -165
The Tampa Bay Lightning are like a more mature and developed Toronto Maple Leafs team. The same skill level, line depth and speed, with a maestro in net and it’s hard to see many differences between the two team, except of course, age and experience. That’s why the Leafs lost the first meeting, they were able to play the same game the Bolts brought, just with less efficacy.
But tonight it could be a lot different. Tampa Bay’s players and coaches will be looking to avoid putting their goalie through another 48-save performance. Andrei Vasilevskiy is more seasoned now, so expect a less wide open game like the first one and expect the Leafs to know exactly what weaknesses to look for.
The last game in early December still stings for Toronto, especially since the final score didn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t a blowout and it was probably one of the most complete games the Leafs play thus far. The Lightning ended up beating the Maple Leafs 4-1 but it could have been Toronto winning by the same score if you watched how the two teams played.
Vasilevskiy was the difference maker that night after missing a month with a left-foot fracture and playing his first game healthy. He stopped 48 of 49 shots, with his team putting up only 21 shots on Toronto’s net.
“It was eye-opening to see how good the Leafs really were,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “If it wasn’t for a Herculean effort from our goaltender, that game may have been different.”
Yes, the Lightning got the unlikely win and stayed atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference and even if they lose tonight it won’t change the standing much since Tampa is killing it with points. But if they want to beat a desperate Leafs team who is coming off a few losses, then they’ll need to make some adjustments.
“We can’t hope that Vasy is going to bail us out once again against these guys,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.
They have to stay out of the penalty box and not give the Maple Leafs any man-advantage opportunities, they had seven in the last game versus the Leafs four, and just spent 14 minutes in the penalty box against the Dallas Stars this past Tuesday.
“We can’t keep relying on special teams,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve got some work to do.” Toronto center Auston Matthews knows that Vasilevskiy will be a challenge again tonight, telling media how tough he is to beat on clear shots.
“You have got to get rebounds, get guys in front of him, take away his eyes,” Matthews said. “It’s going to be the ugly goals that go in.”
So you can expect a lot of ugly goals tonight, since Vasilevskiy is not Hercules and will less likely put in another Herculean-effort. The Lightning will have to look in the mirror and see the team they’ve been, and can’t expect only their goalie to hold off a Toronto team that packed with offensive stars such as Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
“For us, we’ve got to make sure we play better defensively and handle the pressure a little bit better,” Hedman said. “We have got to make sure we play our game.” The Leafs will do the same, and play their future selves in a sense, in a an effort to prove themselves better and get off their skid.
Pick: Toronto wins, 6 plus goals
Moneyline: Toronto Maple Leafs +125 / Tampa Bay Lightning -145