With Sidney Crosby back from a concussion that wiped out huge chunks of this season and last, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs as the 9-2 betting favorites at Bovada to hoist the Cup for the first time since 2009.
Last year, the Pens entered the playoffs without both Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee injury) and were eliminated in the first round. Now both are playing at otherworldly levels. Crosby averaged a career-high 1.68 points per game this season, although he played in only 22 games because of recurring concussion symptoms. Malkin is a favorite for the Hart Trophy after finishing with 50 goals and 109 points. The Penguins are 14-6-2 when the two have played together this season. They are at 21-10 odds to win the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh is the No. 4 seed in the East and opens against the No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers, the third time in four years the Pennsylvania rivals have faced off in the playoffs. Pittsburgh won the previous two meetings. However, the Flyers (13-1 odds to win the Cup) won four of six meetings between the teams during the regular season. And unlike the past two postseasons when Philly had major questions marks in net, the Flyers have a goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov who is capable of winning a series by himself.
The New York Rangers finished with the most points in the East with 109 — one more than the Pens – but they are only the third favorites to win their first Cup since 1994 at 7-1. The Rangers (9-4 to win the East) haven’t been back to the Finals since Mark Messier led that memorable '94 season.
The Blueshirts aren’t playing their best hockey right now, having lost two straight and three of four to close the regular season and miss a chance at the President's Trophy. They open against a dangerous Ottawa team — the Sens are co-long shots with the Florida Panthers to win the Cup at 35-1. Ottawa took three out of four games against New York during the season and earned a point in each game. However, Ottawa slipped to the No. 8 seed because it won only four of its final 10 games.
The team that did win the President's Trophy (for the second consecutive season) with 111 points was the Vancouver Canucks. The reigning Western Conference champions are the second-favorites at Bovada to win the Cup at 5-1. Vancouver, which of course lost to the Bruins in seven games in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, has never hoisted the Cup. In fact, no Canadian team has since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
The top-seeded Canucks, 2-1 favorites to win the West again, open against No. 8 Los Angeles. The big question for Vancouver is whether it will have star forward Daniel Sedin. He missed the final nine games of the regular season with a concussion but did practice Monday. Sedin led Vancouver with 30 goals before being elbowed by Duncan Keith in a loss to Chicago on March 21. It is expected that Sedin will play against the Kings barring any setbacks.
Los Angeles (22-1 to win the Cup) could give Vancouver problems if its injured star is healthy. Forward Jeff Carter missed the last five games of the regular season with a deep bone bruise in his ankle. But Carter practiced Monday and said he expects to play in Game 1 on Thursday. Carter had six goals and three assists in 16 games with the Kings before the injury. They were 11-5-0 with him in the lineup. L.A. and Vancouver split four meetings this season.
Could we see another Boston-Vancouver Finals matchup? The B's are at 9-1 to repeat as champs and 9-2 to win the East again. A Bruins-Canucks Finals rematch is at 14-1. The shortest odds on a Finals matchup is between Vancouver and Pittsburgh at 7-1. The longest odds at 275-1 are Panthers-Kings or Panthers-Coyotes.