As I am always apt to do once a season in one of America’s major sports comes to an end I like to give you the opportunity to see the favorites for next year. Why do I do this so far out? There are a few reasons but one of my favorite is that when you throw some money at a long-shot, especially in a sport like hockey, the excited feeling of knowing you ‘called this’ so much earlier is hard to beat.
We have a really interesting scenario in the National Hockey League right now because the Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last three Stanley Cup titles while the Chicago Blackhawks have won two of the last five Cups. Only Boston has thrown a cog into that pattern.
Will one of those three teams hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2015? Let’s look at the favorites.
Chicago 7/1 – The Blackhawks remain one of the most talented teams in the league with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford and are rightfully the top favorite to win the Cup. Because the Western Conference is the more competitive of the two conferences right now, the mission for Chicago is more difficult than it is in Boston. Still, I really like the Blackhawks’ chances and you should too.
Boston 17/2 – The Bruins have to be the most disappointed team of the group of favorites simply because of the way their season ended. The Bruins were dumped in the second of the Eastern Conference Playoffs by their rivals in Montreal. Only one team ends its’ season successfully but for Boston, much more was expected of this team.
The core remains in Boston led by goalie Tuukka Rask and they will again challenge in the Eastern Conference but what they do this offseason could keep me from pulling a trigger on them right now.
LA Kings 9/1 – Some teams are built for the regular season and some are built for the playoffs. The Kings are clearly built for the postseason. As long as this team remains healthy and Jonathan Quick is between the pipes they will be right there in end. This is a rare team in that they truly love to compete as illustrated by their comebacks in the earlier playoff series. That fact alone makes me really like this team to repeat as champions.
Pittsburgh 10/1 – At the time of this writing the Penguins are still without a head coach. GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were both relieved of their duties following another poor playoff showing. New GM Jim Rutherford has shown great patience in the hiring process but he needs to make a move soon with the NHL Draft and free agency on the horizon.
As long as the Pens have Sidney Crosby and Geno Malkin, they’ll be a threat but both need to perform better in the playoffs. Right now, I’d stay away from the Penguins.
Anaheim 12/1 – The Ducks have to be smarting from their season as hard as anyone. They led 3-2 over their crosstown rivals the Kings in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs and eventually lost the final two games and the series. Legend Teemu Selanne has moved on but Ryan Getzlaf remains to lead the NHL’s best scoring offense. Jonas Hiller is expected back in the net which gives the Ducks a great shot to improve on last year’s season. Ultimately, do you trust their defense?
The greatest playoff run in sports begins this week as the National Hockey League playoffs drop the puck. Yes, you heard me; the greatest playoff run in all of sports is in fact professional hockey.
While I can accept that other sports offer dramatic finishes just as hockey does, those sports fail to deliver as often as the men on ice do. What I will not accept is an argument that says “our playoffs are better” because it is simply not true.
The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball give us dramatic five and seven game series’ but how often do their seventh games live up to the excitement of a game seven in the NHL?
Not very often and that’s a fact. Here are my predictions for the first round of the 2014 National Hockey League Playoffs.
1 Boston vs 4 Detroit – The Wings took three of four from the Bruins this season and I don’t believe that’s just a fluke. Sometimes teams just match-up better with others. Look for Detroit to take the Bruins the distance but Boston wins in seven.
2 Tampa Bay vs 3 Montreal – The Lightning are 3-1 against the Habs this season but all four games were close. TB faces the 4th best penalty kill in the league and that’s the hurdle they need to get over. Take the Lightning in six.
1 Pittsburgh vs 4 Columbus – The Penguins won all five meetings with Columbus this season and may have as many fans in Ohio as they will at home. The league’s top power play should wrap this up in five games.
2 NY Rangers vs 3 Philadelphia Flyers – These two split their season series at two games apiece. The Rangers feature top five squads in both the power play and penalty kill. The Flyers aren’t too bad in either of those departments either though ranking seventh in both. I like the Rangers in seven.
1 Anaheim vs 4 Dallas – Despite having a low-ranking power play (22nd) the Ducks still led the NHL in scoring. Their penalty kill is middle of the road which shouldn’t hurt them against a Stars’ team that ranks 23rd on the power play. Take the Ducks in five.
2 San Jose vs 3 LA Kings – The Sharks lost three of five this year against the Kings in games that were each a little different in terms of scoring affairs vs defensive battles. LA ranks number one in the NHL in goals against with just 2 goals per game. Defense wins in the NHL Playoffs and that’s why I like them in six games.
1 Colorado vs 4 Minnesota – The Avs were 4-1 against the Wild this season and averaged four goals per game in those contests. This series will be decided by the special teams’ units because Colorado is fifth in the NHL on the power play while the Wild are 27th in penalty killing. Take the Avs in five.
2 St. Louis vs 3 Chicago – The Blues rank in the top eight in goals against (3rd), goals per game (6th), PP (8th) and PK (2nd). The Blackhawks have beaten the Blues in their last two meetings after losing three straight against them earlier in the season. Chicago has no problem scoring and I think that’s why they take the slumping Blues to seven games and pull the upset.
Before you lay down a few bucks make sure you tell your Mom “Happy Mother’s Day.” While not everyone has a great or even decent relationship with their mother, still take some time to say “thanks.” Of course it might be a little easier if you have some extra spending money from a few monster games being played today.
First, let me take a quick look back on last night…
The Pacers took a two games to one lead in that series by defeating the Knicks 82-71 behind a dominant defensive effort and nice game from big man Roy Hibbert. In Memphis, the Grizzlies took a two games to one lead over the Thunder by the score of 87-81. Marc Gasol scored 20 points and was tremendous on the defensive end of the floor as well in the winning effort.
On the ice in Long Island last night, the Penguins got an overtime goal from Brooks Orpik, his first of the year, for the 4-3 victory. The Pens close out the Isles four games to two in a series that one could easily argue the Pens were out-played for most. Goalie Tomas Vokoun was not as good as his game five shutout, but he was certainly good enough.
Today on the hardwood…
San Antonio at Golden State (Spurs lead 2-1) – With Golden State guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson getting all the attention, the Spurs’ future hall of famer Tony Parker has become the guy to watch. Parker is averaging more than 24 points per game in the series and now the attention turns to Curry who is dealing with a bad left ankle.
I really hate using the ‘must-win’ tag as much as we are forced to in the playoffs but let’s be real. There’s no way the Warriors are going to win three in a row should they go down 3-1 today to San Antonio. Thompson and Curry will have to shoot better than they did in game three. The Spurs enter today as a point and a half favorite on the road.
While Golden State will be forced to leave it all on the floor today these are the type of games where the veteran Spurs usually take a mercenary’s approach. I like the Spurs to win and cover today.
On the ice…
Washington at NY Rangers (Caps lead series 3-2) – The Rangers enter as goal and a half favorites to send this series back to Washington for a game seven and I have no doubt that’s exactly where this is headed. Henrik Lundqvist has better goals against average in the series than his counter-part Braden Holtby. I like the Rangers to win, but this will only be a one-goal game.
Boston at Toronto (Bruins lead series 3-2) – Leafs’ goalie James Reimer stopped 43 shots on the road to keep Toronto alive in the series and now must put on another great performance at home to force a game seven. Look for the Bruins to keep throwing pucks at the net at will in an effort to keep Reimer busy. Tuukka Rask is giving up two goals per game in the series and if he does that the Bruins win the series tonight. The Bruins are a goal and half favorites and I like them to win by two or more tonight.
Detroit at Anaheim (series tied 3-3) – The greatest playoff there is in sports. A game seven in any playoff is huge, but on the ice, nothing matches the intensity and finality of it. Tonight in Anaheim, the Ducks and Red Wings are set to play one of these epics and unfortunately, the NHL is getting it wrong by playing it at 10pm Eastern time.
The Wings three victories have all come in overtime while the Ducks have one themselves. I expect another tight game tonight but just feel like the Ducks have the edge. The Wings are just not keeping enough pucks off Jimmy Howard and I think that will be their undoing. Take the Ducks to win and cover the 1.5 goal advantage.
After a killer slate of college football last weekend, the activity and excitement at the top of the BCS standings does anything but let up this weekend.
There may not be as many high-profile games this week, but there just happens to be two that are about as high-profile as you can get.
First, #4 Oregon travels to Los Angeles to take on #17 USC in what many predicted in the preseason to be a dress rehearsal for this year’s Pac-12 Championship Game. Whilst that remains to be seen, there’s still a huge importance placed on this clash.
Then, #1 Alabama hits the road to take on #5 LSU in a rematch of January’s BCS National Championship Game. Simply put, this one needs no introduction.
#1 Alabama @ #5 LSU
If you were passing on through CasinoReview yesterday, you might have read our preview of this weekend’s massive Alabama-LSU showdown. If not, be sure to read it now. There’s a bunch of stuff in there that might change your mind (back and forth) before you click your picks this weekend.
Of course, there was one thing our preview didn’t tell you: who’s going to win. How about we do that now?
It might not be another ‘Game of the Century’ but this weekend’s fixture is big news in the SEC West. A loss for No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) would put the side on level pegging with No. 5 LSU (7-1, 3-1 SEC). With just three weeks left to play after this weekend, that would a serious question mark next to who will be the SEC West champ.
We know what to expect of the game: lots of running the football and plenty of defensive stops. But who will win out?
Odds: Alabama is currently 10-point favorites to take the victory in Death Valley, despite the Tigers’ 22-game home winning streak. The over/under is 42.
Take: Alabama – There are a lot of factors that point to LSU taking this one (that home-field advantage, the Tigers’ record after a bye week, LSU’s recent regular season dominance) but ultimately Alabama has done nothing this season to suggest that it will do anything other than win another game. Granted, this is the toughest test the Crimson Tide has faced this season, but LSU’s weaknesses, particularly the lack of an aerial game, don’t stack up well against this Alabama side. It will be close though so take LSU to cover the spread. Take the total to go under: if you want a shootout, you’ll do better to wager on our next fixture.
#4 Oregon @ #17 USC
This weekend’s other big encounter will go a long way to demonstrating how good Oregon (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) is or isn’t.
The Ducks have been heavily criticized for a soft schedule and for sending out second tier players when the game gets out of hand – which it does on a weekly basis. This week’s clash should start answering such criticisms. With Stanford and Oregon State still on the schedule, we’ll know for sure come the end of the season.
USC (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) has lost twice this season, to Stanford in Week 3 and last week in Arizona. Both losses were considered upsets. It has been over a year since the Trojans lost to Stanford at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the last time the side lost a home game.
The last time Oregon lost a game was last November when the Trojans traveled to Eugene. That loss broke the Ducks’ two-game winning streak over USC. Oregon has won three of the last five against its Pac-12 rival.
Odds: Betting opened with Oregon favored by six points. That number has increased to 8½ as we’ve closed in on kickoff. The over/under is 70.
Take: Oregon – In many ways it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see USC topple Oregon, but those performances against Stanford and Arizona are fresh in the memory, and if the Trojans can’t beat those teams, they can’t beat the Ducks. That being said, this is unlikely to be the bulldozer job we’ve seen from Oregon all season. Still, take the Ducks to cover the spread. Going over 70 points might be a tall ask, but the last two times these teams have played, they’ve done just that. Oregon leads the nation in points and USC doesn’t exactly have a defense to write home about. Take the over then if you’re looking for a few extra bucks.
With the bulk of the schedule behind us, unbeaten schools now look forward to their remaining schedule with hopes of a place in the BCS Championship Game firmly resting on how each fare over the next five weeks.
With five teams still unbeaten at the top of the BCS rankings, a perilous battle remains ahead. Just one defeat could throw a spanner in the works for any team – including Alabama. This is especially true with the likes of Mississippi State, Louisville, Rutgers and Ohio looking to go unbeaten also. Add to this those teams with one solitary loss (LSU, USC, Oklahoma, Florida State, Georgia, etc.) and we could be looking at one hell of a race to the finish.
Here then is a look at the paths the top five teams face on their journey to remain unbeaten, starting with the easiest* schedule.
*Don’t be fooled: the easiest schedule is by no means easy
#3 Kansas State (7-0, 4-0 Big 12)
Ranked Wins: 2 (Oklahoma, West Virginia)
Oct 27: Vs. #14 Texas Tech (6-1, 3-1 Big 12)
Nov 3: Vs. Oklahoma State (4-2, 2-1 Big 12)
Nov 10: @ TCU (5-2, 2-2 Big 12)
Nov 17: @ Baylor (3-3, 0-3 Big 12)
Dec 1: Vs. #23 Texas (5-2, 2-2 Big 12)
Strength of Opposition: 23-10 (.699)
Ranked Opponents: 2
Toughest Game: Vs. Texas – The Longhorns might not have had the best of seasons, but they’re still a tough out.
Potential Slip Up: Vs. Texas Tech – The Wildcats’ defense should be enough to beat the Red Raiders, but then again, this is a team that put an unthinkable hurting on West Virginia.
Verdict: On paper, Kansas State faces a tough challenge, with its remaining opponents tallying a 23-10 winning record this season. This is testament more to the depth of the Big 12 as a whole than anything else. In reality, the Wildcats have already done the hard work (beating Oklahoma) and look more than capable of knocking off the two remaining ranked opponents. Simply taking care of business will see the side finish 12-0.
#2 Florida (7-0, 6-0 SEC)
Ranked Wins: 3 (Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina)
Oct 27: Vs. #10 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC)
Nov 3: Vs. Missouri (3-4, 0-4 SEC)
Nov 10: Vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (4-3, 2-2 Sun Belt)
Nov 17: Vs. Jacksonville State (4-3, 3-2 OVC)
Nov 24: @ #12 Florida State (7-1, 4-1 ACC)
Strength of Opposition: 24-12 (.667)
Ranked Opponents: 2
Toughest Game: @ Florida State – The rivalry is a bigger factor than the Seminoles’ ability. Arguably Georgia is a tougher game on paper, but this one will be heated. Plus it has the pressure of being the last game of the season.
Potential Slip Up: Vs. Georgia – Getting past the Bulldogs with a win this weekend is possible and probable, but peeking forward would be a mistake.
Verdict: Like Kansas State, the Gators have a tough run-in on paper in terms of opponent’s winning percentages. But two FBS games rip that theory to shreds. Florida’s schedule certainly works in its favor. Most of the conference games – and the tough games in general – are history. After Georgia, it’s a clear run until Florida State.
#1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC)
Ranked Wins: 1 (Michigan)
Oct 27: Vs. #11 Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0 SEC)
Nov 3: @ #6 LSU (7-1, 3-1 SEC)
Nov 10: Vs. #20 Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC)
Nov 17: Vs. Western Carolina (1-7, 0-6 Southern)
Nov 24: Vs. Auburn (1-6, 0-5 SEC)
Strength of Opposition: 21-16 (.568)
Ranked Opponents: 3
Toughest Game: @ LSU – It might not be a battle of the unbeaten, but this National Championship rematch has been circled on both schools’ calendars since January.
Potential Slip Up: Vs. Auburn – On paper it’s a whitewash but Auburn’s terrible season would be made by an upset victory.
Verdict: Unlike Florida, Alabama still has to play all of its tough games, with the three toughest coming back-to-back. Add to that a fierce rivalry game with Auburn and you have the ingredients for an upset somewhere along the road. The strength of opposition (.568) might seem enticing but take out Western Carolina and things look a little less simplistic. Yes, Alabama can win out, but the potential pitfalls come thick and fast.
Toughest Game: @ USC – A visit to the Coliseum on the last day of the season will be a tough ask for the Irish, but must-see TV if Notre Dame gets past Oklahoma this week.
Potential Slip Up: @ Oklahoma – This is Notre Dame’s toughest game of the season so far, and one that will determine whether the Irish have a shot at the championship. Slipping up here puts all that hard work to waste.
Verdict: Visits to Oklahoma and USC would be tough for any side, and with both potentially still in the hunt for the BCS title, it’s not going to be easy for a Notre Dame side that has already knocked off tough opposition this year. One thing’s for sure: with the Irish’s schedule this year, unbeaten pretty much guarantees a spot in the big game.
#4 Oregon (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12)
Ranked Wins: 2 (Arizona, Washington)
Oct 27: Vs. Colorado (1-6, 1-3 Pac-12)
Nov 3: @ #9 USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12)
Nov 10: @ California (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12)
Nov 17: Vs. #17 Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12)
Nov 24: @ #7 Oregon State (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12)
Strength of Opposition: 21-14 (.600)
Ranked Opponents: 3
Toughest Game: @ USC – This one’s been earmarked as a potential Pac-12 Championship Game preview since the preseason.
Potential Slip Up: @ Oregon State – The Beavers have surprised all this season and come the last day of the season, an upset win over the Ducks could be on the agenda.
Verdict: The two biggest knocks against Oregon this season have been its defense and its schedule. Up to this point it’s been plain sailing for the Ducks but with USC, Stanford and Oregon State still on the schedule, it’s going to be tough for Chip Kelly’s side to navigate the Pac-12 waters. That triumvirate of encounters makes this the toughest schedule of the five.
Whilst we can find enjoyment in looking ahead, the teams themselves cannot. Each has to remain clearly focused on the job at hand, and that’s winning this week. A loss at any point in the next five weeks could seriously affect the National Championship landscape, and that is exactly why we’ll be watching with baited breath.
Thursday night’s 17-13 loss to Washington has cast a cloud over not only #8 Stanford and its chances of being selected to play in the BCS National Championship Game, but also the Pac-12’s chances as a conference.
For a conference that was considered the only viable competition to the dominant SEC ahead of the season, things are looking less than clear now.
Decoding the Pac-12
Just two weeks ago, the Cardinal upset USC, denting the Trojans’ own chances of going to the Championship Game. In the process, Stanford staked a claim to be the team that would head to Miami Gardens in January. Admittedly, it was a loose claim. Stanford after all struggled to beat San Jose State in Week 1.
Ahead of Week 4, UCLA looked to be putting their names forward for consideration, but a loss to Oregon State suggested that it’s a little too early to consider the Bruins as serious contenders.
Oregon State meanwhile has gone 2-0 with two wins over ranked opposition. Not a bad start. But can the Beavers keep that pace up? Probably not, although oddsmakers have slashed odds of a BCS championship from 500/1 in the preseason to 75/1 this week.
So that leaves Oregon. Having been considered second fiddle to USC during all of the preseason, the Ducks are now considered the Pac-12’s best chance for a national title. Preseason odds of 10/1 have steadily shortened to 13/2 heading into this week’s action.
The Ducks have looked solid so far this season, averaging close to 53 points per game. But critics could argue that Oregon has yet to play anybody of merit. Sure, they defeated Arizona 49-0 last week, but Arizona’s inclusion on the AP poll was less than solidified. Had the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska played better this season, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats appearing on that list.
For Oregon, the big challenge comes on November 3, with a visit to USC. That is of course if the Ducks can get by Washington next week. A loss to the Cougars would effectively write off National Championship hopes this year.
Week 5 Pac-12 Schedule
After Washington’s upset win over Stanford, here’s what else is on tap this Saturday. Both USC and Utah are on a bye week.
Arizona State (3-1, 0-1 road, 1-0 Pac-12) @ California (1-3, 1-1 home, 0-1 Pac-12)
4:00 PM ET / 1:00 PM PT
The Sun Devils will be looking to continue their strong start to the season with a win over a struggling Golden Bears team. Arizona State currently leads the South division by way of USC’s loss to Stanford and Arizona’s loss to Oregon. Still, the team opened as underdogs in this one, before odds flipped in their favor. The Sun Devils are currently narrow favorites (-1) with the over/under set at 58. There’s certainly money to be made on this game.
A loss to Oregon State last week saw UCLA’s two week tenure in the AP Polls come to an end. A win against Colorado this week could, but probably won’t, see the Bruins return to the rankings. UCLA enters the game as favorites (-21) and are expected to make easy work of a Colorado team that has looked poor this season. Only a 35-34 win over Washington State last week prevented the Buffaloes from starting the season 0-4. The over/under is 60, with UCLA expecting to accumulate most of those points.
Arizona enjoyed two weeks in the AP Poll before losing big to Oregon last week. Oregon State may have only played two, but the Beavers have knocked off two ranked teams (Wisconsin, UCLA) and is sitting pretty heading into this game.
Oddsmakers have the Wildcats as favorites (-3) heading into this one, so they’ve yet to be bowled over by the Beavers’ performances. This games figures to be a close one. The over/under is 61. A win for Arizona will see the Wildcats flirting with the AP poll once again. A win for Oregon State will cement the team’s AP approved credentials.
#2 Oregon (4-0, 0-0 road, 1-0 Pac-12) @ Washington State (2-2, 1-1 home, 0-1 Pac-12)
10:30 PM ET / 7:30 PM PT
Whether Oregon remains the Pac-12’s last remaining hope against the dominance of the SEC remains to be seen. This week the Ducks head out on the road for the first time. Despite the travel north, Oregon are big favorites (-32) over the Cougars. The over/under is 74. Oddsmakers are expecting this to be a high-scoring one-sided affair, just like Oregon’s previous four.