NHL Stanley Cup playoffs first round best bets: Will the Cup stay in Florida?

Will Auston Matthews, at left, or Jonathan Huberdeau, right, win the Conn Smythe Trophy? Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs are finally upon us, and after 82 regular-season games, there are 16 NHL teams remaining in the quest to raise the greatest trophy in sports. However, the immediate questions on the minds of bettors are what will happen, how will it happen and who will do it.

To answer these queries, we've asked our NHL insiders and betting experts to break down the field and spotlight key spots where value can be found.

All odds from Caesars Sportsbook.

The Lightning have won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Do you think they can win a third in a row? Or is there a different team at the top of the odds board you are playing?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer and Daily Wager contributor: There was some slight slippage at 5-on-5 play by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the regular season. That's to be expected when you've won back-to-back Stanley Cups and are trying to get up for Game 68 in the regular season. (Coincidentally, a shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens.) But now, it's tournament time, and the Lightning bring back the same cast of characters ... save for one significant change. Their checking line from the past two championship runs dispersed to the four winds: Yanni Gourde (Seattle Kraken), Barclay Goodrow (New York Rangers) and Blake Coleman (Calgary Flames) are no longer there to be a defensive stopper who also scores critical goals.

But the Lightning might have found Version 2.0 of that line: Holdover Pat Maroon, playing with offseason pickups Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. That was the second-best line at 5-on-5 in the regular season, for lines with a minimum of 500 minutes together. Given that, I don't think the Lightning at +1100 is a bad wager at all. But they've got a tough road, starting with the Toronto Maple Leafs (+1000) and then likely the Florida Panthers (+550), who are my pick to win it all ... provided they don't get Bolt'd.

Kristen Shilton, senior NHL writer: Tampa Bay can absolutely win a third Stanley Cup. The Lightning have a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy, they're deep down the middle and they have superbly talented wingers, a solid defense core and a creative coach behind the bench in Jon Cooper. However, Tampa Bay will face stiff competition in an effort to three-peat. The Colorado Avalanche might be the favorite to capture hockey's chalice. The Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are right behind them. But the Lightning have something the others don't, and that's recent Cup-winning experience.

Arda Öcal, host of The Drop and In The Crease: Yeah, I'm with Kristen. Tampa Bay certainly could three-peat. Will they? I feel like the confidence level among the hockey community isn't as high as it could be, but it also wouldn't be a complete surprise. It feels justifiable either way. Colorado and Florida seem like the favorites in each conference and with good reason: They are stacked. But I wouldn't say Tampa Bay is a bad look by any stretch.

Sachin Dave Chandan, Sports Betting editor: I want to say no, since winning 12 playoff series' in a row is brutally difficult. However, when looking at playoff picks, I think highly of teams that are hot at the right time and have an experienced veteran core. Over the past two weeks, the Lightning have a 48% power play conversion rate, second best in the NHL, and they also are entering May with a healthy Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Even though I didn't pick Tampa Bay to raise the Cup, I think you're getting strong value at +1100.

The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs begin Monday night on the networks of ESPN, and you can catch all the action from now until Lord Stanley's Cup is raised right here.

Playoff Central | Complete Stanley Cup playoff schedule | Playoff Hockey Pick'em

Speaking of favorites, the Florida Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time, although they have not won a postseason series since the Year of the Rat run to the Cup Final in 1996. How far do you have them going?

Shilton: Honestly, my gut says Florida might be headed for disappointment. Yes, the Panthers can score at will and dominate any team offensively. But the playoffs are so much more than that. Teams need reliable goaltending and a defense by committee. Those are two areas Florida hasn't excelled at over the past few weeks. The Panthers can't expect to get down early and then ring up four or five goals to get out of it. If that's the strategy, I can't see them winning more than one round.

Öcal: It all comes down to goaltending for me. If Spencer Knight continues that stellar April performance and we get elite regular season-level Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs, then this team will be an absolute force. I think it's pretty clear that goaltending is the single most important position in hockey that can either win you or lose you games. How many goalies in history can you point to and say they won that team a Cup or a series or they carried it to the Cup Final? Even as a rookie or young goaltender? Matt Murray, Jordan Binnington, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward. That's where I'm focusing on with the Cats.

Wyshynski: As previously stated, the Panthers are my team this year. The football scores they put up this season obscured the fact they were a top-10 team in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. As Arda noted, their goaltending doesn't inspire all that much, but my hope is that it won't cost them a series. But I'm enchanted by the scoring depth. It's ridiculous, and the rich just got richer with Claude Giroux, who by the way has 23 points in 18 games since coming over from the Flyers. I like them to win the Cup, but if you're looking for immediate returns, getting them at -2.5 games against Washington in the first round (+140) works.

Chandan: Much like Greg, I also chose the Panthers to win the Cup this year, and I thought about it for a long time before actually writing that out. Yes, the Panthers have not won a playoff series since "Mission Impossible" (the first one) was leading the box office. Is Florida's mission impossible? No, because I believe they will easily dispatch the Capitals in the first round (-350 favorites); and if they beat the winner of the Maple Leafs-Lightning series, then I see them winning the Eastern Conference (+240) and raising the Cup (+550).

The Montreal Canadiens shocked everyone last year in advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, albeit in a different format. Is there an underdog team in this year's field you have your eye on?

Öcal: Follow me on this one because this is not a black-and-white underdog answer. Please bear with me. The Toronto Maple Leafs -- not in lineup but in overall story. Clearly, they are an incredible team; a roster like that should challenge for a Stanley Cup. But ask any Leafs fans and they will tell you a few things about Toronto and the playoffs in 2022. First of all, no hopes will be elevated even one centimeter (#Canada) until the Buds make the second round. Then, secondly, as every game progresses and every round is won, the demons of 1967, and not winning a series since 2004, and all the painful first-round exits of the last several years, and "It was 4-1" and whatever else you can think of will all merge like Voltron into the ultimate monstrosity of anxiety. At least in the minds of Toronto sports fans, until those demons are exorcized, they will always be underdogs on the ice. Clearly not many other people will see it this way, but hockey fans wearing blue and white from London to Belleville to Lakeshore to Barrie certainly will (and, of course, the ones elsewhere).

Shilton: I don't know if Boston would be considered an underdog, per se, but they're a wild-card team I would never count out. No matter how "aged" their core might have become.

Wyshynski: It's an absolute travesty that the Minnesota Wild (second in the West) and the St. Louis Blues (fourth) have to play each other in the first round under this playoff format. A really, really good team is going to be one-and-done. I think the Wild (+1600) will advance, but I've been singing the praises of the Blues (+2000) all season. I think either team is capable of knocking out the Colorado Avalanche in the second round. After that, who knows? So if we're talking a longer shot, then it's the Blues.

Is there a first-round series that you are looking at in which you see betting value?

Öcal: The Blues at +120 are definitely value to me, especially if you subscribe to the notion that past success and regular-season dominance against one team translates to the postseason. St. Louis is 9-0-1 against Minnesota, and the Blues swept the season series. Will most people say that's a clear indication of what will happen in the postseason? Of course not. I like the Wild a lot. I think they have depth. The Marc-Andre Fleury pickup at the trade deadline gives them a Stanley Cup-caliber goalie. I do think that people might be sleeping on St. Louis in this series, and it won't be an easy out by any stretch for Minnesota.

Wyshynski: The Los Angeles Kings at +200 against the Edmonton Oilers is an interesting number. I think the Oilers have been the default choice because they've trended well under interim coach Jay Woodcroft, have ridden a hot goalie in Mike Smith, have a couple of guys named Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and are facing a Kings team without injured defenseman Drew Doughty. But the Kings are no fluke. Their underlying numbers have been strong all season, and they have some absolute playoff gamers in Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. If the Jonathan Quick Revival Tour extends to a first-round series, the Kings could pull a stunner here. Man, I think I just worked myself into a shoot. Too bad my picks are locked.

Chandan: The New York Rangers are -120 favorites against the Pittsburgh Penguins, largely due to likely Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers going 3-1 in the regular season (including a shutout in their April meeting), but this series could be close. This is where I'd think about betting it to be decided in six games (+200) and doubling down by choosing Rangers to win four games to two (+500 exact series result).

Made it this far down and think you can pick the playoff winners? Test your NHL picking skills against the hosts and fans of The Point, Daily Wager, First Take and more right here when you play our free Playoff Hockey Pick'em game.

Which series is ripe for a sweep?

Öcal: The Avalanche over the Predators, if only because of Juuse Saros being out of the Nashville lineup, as Colorado might have too much up front for Nashville to contend with. The Predators could win one at home, like New Jersey did against Tampa Bay the year Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy in 2018, but that might be all. Colorado has something to prove this year.

Wyshynski: I have the Flames on sweep watch against the Dallas Stars. The Flames are a balanced team, with three 40-goal scorers and a goalie in Jacob Markstrom who had a league-best nine shutouts this season. The Stars are essentially a one-line team, although one with a strong goaltender in Jake Oettinger. That one line is terrific -- Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz -- but the Flames have multiple forward groups that can counter them defensively and counterpunch offensively. Throw in home ice for the Flames and this could be a quick one. A Flames sweep is +475.

Chandan: The Panthers to sweep the Washington Capitals is priced at +500, which isn't a price that I love, but of all the Eastern Conference series, this is the only one I'd be willing to bet. Additionally, a series length of four games is priced at +400, so I'd grab that bet, as well.

Who do you see winning the Conn Smythe Trophy?

Öcal: Auston Matthews (+1600) or Jack Campbell (+4000).

Wyshynski: I have the Panthers winning the Stanley Cup. If that happens, give me Aleksander Barkov (+1200).

Chandan: While the Conn Smythe Trophy doesn't always go to the team's leading scorer, if Florida does win, I like Jonathan Huberdeau's chances (+1200).