Sidney Crosby a difference maker

For the first time in five years, the New York Rangers are playing a playoff game at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts are -135 favorites for Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but series odds — which the Rangers have at -115 and the Pens at -105 — suggest this best-of-7 is essentially a coin toss.

And given the way those two teams played on the track, the Rangers’ lead in goal, the way the season series played out, and the fact that the Blueshirts have home field advantage, the odds of the series were one little surprise . Most people, especially those who don’t bet regularly on the NHL, would have expected Rangers to be a shorter favorite for the series, probably in the -135 range.

That argument that Rangers should be a more significant favorite has merit on the surface. Not only did the Rangers finish seven points clear of the Penguins overall, New York also went 14-6-1 after the close, while Pittsburgh went 8-9-2.

While recent form points to Rangers, the biggest advantage in this series lies in the blue color with Igor Shesterkin. This is the Russian’s playoff debut in the NHL, but there’s no reason to doubt he won’t be able to withstand the pressures that come with playing in the postseason. Shesterkin finished the season with a .935 save percentage and +34.1 Goals Saved Over Expected (GSAx). No goaltender has come close to matching Shesterkin’s form all season and it’s hard to imagine Casey DeSmith surpassing Shesterkin in seven games.

Sidney Crosby waves.
Sidney Crosby greets the crowd after a Penguins game.
NHLI via Getty Images

But the penguins won’t ask DeSmith to do that. The Penguins expect to be ahead 5-a-side, which should mean Shesterkin will be the busier of the two keepers over the course of this series. Despite wobbling on the course, the Penguins finished the regular season with the eighth-best expected goal average and eighth-best high-hazard scoring chances average. And while New York has been steadily improving its 5-on-5 numbers since the start of the season, the blueshirts still ranked 20th in the NHL in terms of expected goal average after the New Year and 16th as of the close.

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Sidney Crosby’s game will go a long way in determining whether Pittsburgh will be the better game at 5v5. Crosby has had another fantastic season and is one of the best two-way centers in the game at this point in his career. If his line can wipe out one of New York’s top lines, the scales should tip evenly toward Pittsburgh.

Betting against Shesterkin is never fun, but there’s reason to believe DeSmith can provide the Penguins with the goalies they need if they want to be the better team. DeSmith has recorded a savings percentage of 0.927 and +5.37 goals saved above expectations (GSAx) since February 1st.

Bettors can argue for both sides of this encounter. The rangers have many signals pointing to them and there are cases that need to be made for the penguins. That tells us these games are pretty much coin tosses, so Pittsburgh getting +115 has some value.

The bet: Penguins +115 Sidney Crosby a difference maker


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