This is it: Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders. Winner moves on to the Stanley Cup Finals, loser goes home.
Let's get to it.
Congratulations are in order for the New York Islanders, who looked like they were on their way towards another shutout loss — or at least, a lopsided one — and the end of their playoff run in Game 6.
It was not to be. The Isles fought all the way back, down 2-0 late, to win 3-2 in overtime. And they did it on their home ice — likely the last time they would play at the old Nassau Coliseum. It was a heartwarming victory and just added to the Islanders' season narrative.
Speaking of narratives, will Nikita Kucherov play tonight?
The Lightning's star forward was knocked out during his first shift in Game 6 (much to the dismay of a certain writer who had been riding Kucherov's point streak) and his status for tonight has yet to be updated as of this writing.
Yes, Tampa Bay is arguably the most talented team in the NHL up and down the roster, and yes, they played the entire regular season without Kucherov, so I understand why you would say, "One guy isn't going to make a difference at this point."
I would counter that this isn't just one guy, and his absence or activation will make a huge difference in this game.
That aforementioned point streak has been the engine that has fueled the Lightning offense — and, perhaps most importantly, the Lightning power play, which has been nigh impossible to stop with Kucherov on the ice this series.
If Kucherov misses tonight's game, the Isles have to feel more confident than ever about their chances — and the odds seem to reflect that. This is the first time all series that the Lightning have been under a -180 or more favorite when playing at home. Meanwhile, the Islanders — who have been the most profitable underdog this side of the Montreal Canadiens in these NHL playoffs — are getting some quality +145 juice to deliver a huge upset to the reigning champs tonight.
This is a spicy one.
As tempting as that juice is, I wouldn't feel any sort of real confidence taking the Islanders in this spot; I'd just be chasing the plus money. Tampa Bay hasn't lost two playoff games in a row since dinosaurs roamed the land (a slight exaggeration), and it's outscored New York 12-2 at the Amalie Arena in this series. -175 is, of course, a bit too much chalk (even if it seems right) with Kucherov's status still up in the air.
This will be a late call for me, and if you didn't get the gist by now, it will depend on Kucherov's status. If he plays — and isn't on a pitch count — I see Tampa Bay ending this series by two or more goals, probably a late empty-netter (no, they're not going to win 8-0 again). And even though it's probably ill-advised considering the history of Game 7s in the NHL (they notoriously skew UNDER), I'll also put something small on an OVER play. A Kucherov-led Lightning offense has been unstoppable at home, and the Isles have cashed the OVER in five of their last six games on the road. I've said it before — New York's normally vaunted defense loses some of its powers outside of the Nassau Coliseum.
All that said, if Kucherov is out, the Lightning will have to seek playmaking and goal-scoring elsewhere. While they have the horses to do just that (see Brayden Point's historic goal streak), the requisite line-shuffling that will take place will make New York's job of trying to stop this train a lot easier. I would take the UNDER in that case, as it is plus money and Game 7s have proved to be historically tight.
Like many other games and narratives in these NHL playoffs, one player's availability/performance has been able to make a massive difference. John Tavares, Max Pacioretty, Robin Lehner, Carey Price — and now, Nikita Kucherov.
The best advice for tonight? Whatever route you take, wait to learn Kucherov's status before plugging in those tickets.
Pick(s): IF KUCHEROV PLAYS — Tampa Bay Lightning -1.5 (+155), OVER 5 (-125) / IF KUCHEROV DOESN'T PLAY — UNDER 5 (+105)