After earning the No. 1 playoff seed, the Golden Knights appear to have a clear path to the Western Conference Final and are the clear favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
“They’re never going to admit to it, but the path they have is really good for them,” Westgate sportsbook vice president of risk Ed Salmons said. “The Knights have as good a chance as anyone right now. The East is much deeper than the West. There are some really bad teams in the West, and the Knights are going to play two of them in the first two rounds of the playoffs.”
Vegas, the +450 favorite to win the Stanley Cup, is the heaviest first-round series favorite at -350 over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago, fresh off its play-in series upset of the Oilers in Edmonton, is led by four players — Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford — who helped the Blackhawks win Stanley Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
But postseason pedigree aside, Salmons said Chicago is the perfect opponent for the Knights.
“If they could’ve picked the team to play against, it would’ve been Chicago,” he said. “Teams that can be scary in the playoffs, like we just saw when Columbus beat Toronto, are so defensive-minded that each goal is like pulling teeth. But it’s the complete opposite with Chicago.
“They play really fast, and their defense is not really good. The totals in the series are going to be 6½ (goals). That’s a big number for a hockey game.”
Books expect upsets
If all the favorites hold serve in the first round, the Knights would face defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round. But Salmons doesn’t expect that to happen. He expects at least one first-round underdog — either Arizona (over Colorado), Calgary (over Dallas) or Vancouver (over St. Louis) — to advance in the West.
“It’s a huge favorite for one of those teams to pull an upset,” he said. “If we had a prop, ‘Will one of those three teams win a series?’ Yes would be a huge favorite.
“In hockey, it rarely happens that all the favorites win. There’s always going to be an upset.”
While the Eastern Conference race is more wide open, Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito and handicapper Lou Finocchiaro see only three teams winning the West: Vegas, Colorado or St. Louis.
“There’s a lot more parity in the East than there is out West,” Esposito said. “I really like one of those three teams to emerge from the Western Conference.
“You can make a case for Vegas because of their goaltending with (Robin) Lehner and (Marc-Andre) Fleury. No team in the league has a tandem like that. Outside of Vegas, Colorado, in my opinion, is the best team in the postseason. Their speed and their depth are awfully good, and they’re well-disciplined on both sides of the ice.”
Salmons likes the Knights to win it all.
“Watching the Knights for three years, this is by far the best team they’ve ever had,” he said. “They have four lines, and all four lines are great lines. They have six (solid) defensemen and two goalies. There’s no real weakness for the Knights.
“Obviously, Fleury hasn’t played his best, but I expect him to pick it up, and they also have Lehner there. I think the Knights are built to have a really long run. I expect the Knights to at least go to the conference final. If they do play Colorado, I think the Knights are a tougher team and will eventually beat them in the series.”
While Vegas offers no value as a prohibitive series favorite over Chicago, Finocchiaro (@GambLou) recommends a series play on the Knights only if they lose Game 1. The same goes for other large series favorites.
“If Chicago, with its great leadership and Crawford in net, can steal a game from the Golden Knights and go up 1-0, when the Vegas price goes from -350 in the series to -150, that’s when you get involved,” he said.