Tampa Bay Lightning (+170) at Pittsburgh Penguins (-200, 5 o/u)
Look at that face. That little boy is your ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals, Pittsburgh Penguins. After a flicker of doubt led to the Pens starting Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5, a switch back to 22-year-old Matt Murray saved Pittsburgh’s season, at least for now.
The kid will follow up the biggest game of his life with another biggest game of his life, as Pittsburgh (11-6, 6-3 home) hosts the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning (11-5, 5-2 road) in a one-game, winner-take-all showdown. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals goes tonight at the CONSOL Energy Center (8:00 PM Eastern).
In the first elimination game Pittsburgh faced all postseason, Murray made 28 saves in a 5-2 win in Game 6 to send this series back home. Now one more win will send the Penguins to their first Cup finals since 2009.
But this is a spot the Lightning are comfortable in. They made last year’s Stanley Cup Finals by winning a Game 7 on the road against the New York Rangers. Of course, a big reason they were able to steal that game was the performance of goalie Ben Bishop, who had a 22-save shutout in a 2-0 win. Bishop hasn’t played in this series since going down in Game 1 with a leg injury.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been admirable in his stead, always giving Tampa a chance to win. But the Lightning have been such slow starters this series, often times their offense wakes up too late to pull out the victory. Pittsburgh has raced out to 2-0 leads in four of the first six games, and outshot the Lightning in the first period 68-52.
With two inexperienced goalies in the crease, this game will boil down to the snipers. Phil Kessel has been pacing the Penguins with nine goals on 13-percent shooting, while Nikita Kucherov leads the Bolts with 11 goals on 22-percent shooting.
Which team can generate more opportunities in 5-on-5 play will be especially important. The whistles have been few and far between and, in a tight Game 7, there could be even fewer shorthanded chances than usual.
This is the first time the Lightning have had their backs against the wall in 2016, but the franchise has historically responded well, winning five of their last six Game 7s. The Penguins haven’t won a Game 7 since Sidney Crosby’s first Stanley Cup back in 2009.
For betting purposes, you have to like the long odds Tampa is getting tonight. This is a team with experience in this spot, and the notion of “home ice” has been all but disproven these playoffs: in 84 postseason games, road teams have won 42. Take the team with the better payoff tonight in what looks like a toss-up.
Pick: Tampa (+170).
(Photo credit: Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)