Nothing beats a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and hockey fans will be treated to their second one of the first round on Wednesday night when the Detroit Red Wings visit the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts opened as -169 favorites at BetOnline with a total of five goals.
Detroit blew a chance to finish things off at home on Monday as it was beaten 5-2 by the desperate Lightning. Tyler Johnson, who has been the best player in this series, had two goals and was the No. 1 star for the game. The Bolts jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second quarter. The Wings climbed within 3-2 on Tomas Tatar's second goal of the game at the 1:39 mark of the third, but the Lightning got a cushion with Alex Killom's goal at the 14:51 mark before an empty-netter.
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That the Lightning are even in a Game 7 with Steven Stamkos yet to score a goal (on 19 shots) is pretty surprising. There could also be a key suspension for Wednesday. Tampa's Nikita Kucherov, who had three assists on Monday, was knocked from the game briefly after sustaining a very questionable high hit from Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall late in the second period. Kucherov did return, but the league will certainly look at that hit and decide on Kronwall's fate. He wasn't penalized on the play, but that doesn't always matter. Kronwall was to have a hearing Tuesday. He had nine goals and 35 assists during the regular season.
The NHL apparently is waiting on the result of this series to set the official schedule for the next round even though we know all the matchups. The winner of this series will visit Montreal for Game 1 sometime this weekend. The Habs, the winner of the Atlantic Division, ousted Ottawa in six games in the first round. Certainly Montreal would be favored against either team even though the Lightning swept the season series 5-0 with the Canadiens.
The other Eastern Conference semifinal series was set on Monday night when the Washington Capitals beat the visiting New York Islanders 2-1 in Game 7. Rookie Evgeni Kuznetsov scored the go-ahead goal with 7:18 left in the game, assuring no more hockey games at the Islanders' Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with the Isles heading to Brooklyn next season. Caps goalie Braden Holtby had about as easy a night as you could have, needing to make only 10 saves. Washington did not allow an Islanders power-play goal on 14 chances in seven games.
The Capitals now will be series underdogs against New York Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season and pretty easily dispatched the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, allowing just eight goals along the way. The Rangers remain Bovada favorites to win the Stanley Cup (13/4) and Eastern Conference (5/4). The Canadiens are 12/5 to win the East, followed by the Caps (9/2), Lightning (11/2) and Red Wings (12/1).
This will be the fourth time in five years and fifth in seven that the Rangers and Capitals will meet in the playoffs. They last met in the 2013 East semifinals, with New York winning a Game 7 5-0 in Washington's ice. New York won three of four games against Washington this season. However, one key Ranger is out indefinitely: right wing Mats Zuccarello. He was hit in the left side of the head by a slap shot in Game 5 vs. Pittsburgh. Zuccarello had 15 goals and 34 assists during the season and two assists in the series vs. the Pens. The Blueshirts will get back defenseman Kevin Klein. He hasn't played since March 11 because of a broken left arm.
In the West, the conference's top seed, Anaheim, takes on Calgary. The Ducks are -225 series favorites and 19/10 co-West favorites with Chicago. The Flames are 11/2 long shots in the West. Rather amazingly, the Flames have lost 20 straight regular-season games at Anaheim's Honda Center (0-15-5). This could be sweet redemption for Calgary goalie Jonas Hiller, who wasn't re-signed with the Ducks last season. In four games against the Ducks during the season, he went 1-2-0 with a 3.43 GAA and .889 save percentage. The Ducks and Flames haven't faced off in the playoffs since 2006.
Finally, Chicago has home-ice advantage over Minnesota and is a -145 series favorite. I think this one will start Friday because the teams can't play at the United Center on Saturday as the Bulls might have a Game 7 vs. the Bucks there then. This is the third straight season these teams have met in the playoffs. In 2013, the Hawks won in five and last year in six. This Wild team is clearly better than either of those. They also have the better goaltender in Devan Dubnyk. He was 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts in 38 straight starts for the Wild in the regular season. He was great in Games 5 and 6 against the Blues in the first round after being pulled in Game 4.
The Hawks used both Corey Crawford and rookie Scott Darling in the six-game first-round win over Nashville. To no surprise, Crawford gets the call in Game 1. He started Games 1 and 2 vs. the Predators and struggled. Darling started Games 3-6 but was pulled for Crawford in that clincher after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Chicago won the first three regular-season meetings for the Wild, but Minnesota won the final two behind Dubnyk.
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