The battle for top spot in the Central Division gets serious Saturday night as the division-leading Winnipeg Jets host the runner-up Nashville Predators.
The Jets have a two-point lead and a game in hand on the Predators, and can take a significant step toward securing the division title with a home victory. Both teams are coming off a defeat last time out, with Winnipeg dropping a 5-0 decision to the host Vegas Golden Knights and the Predators falling 2-1 to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins.
While these teams couldn't be much closer from a standings perspective, there is an enormous gap between them when it comes to first-period offense. The Jets enter the weekend as one of the most prolific first-period teams in the NHL – that shutout loss in Vegas aside – with their 78 goals trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.
At the other end of the spectrum: The Predators, whose 49 first-period tallies rank third-last in the NHL, ahead of only the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. We like Winnipeg striking first in this one.
Prediction: First team to score: Winnipeg (-120)
If you're going to lean on Nashville to win any period in this game, the middle frame looks like the likeliest option. The Predators enter Saturday's pivotal encounter with a plus-7 goal differential in the second period, having score 80 goals (tied for sixth-most in the league) while surrendering 73.
Winnipeg has been surprisingly weak in the middle stanza compared to the first and third periods, coming in with a minus-8 (67 goals for, 75 goals against). The margin for error is thin here, but we like Nashville to win the second period considering the favorable odds we're getting on this wager.
Prediction: Nashville second period three-way (+160)
Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler is known more as a distributor than a scorer, entering the weekend ranked third in the league in assists with 68. But Wheeler does have 20 goals on the season – and in a game where few players have fared that well against the opposing team from a goal-scoring standpoint, Wheeler represents a terrific live underdog option on the player goal prop.
Wheeler has scored 14 goals in 31 career games against the Predators in his career, tied for the second-most he has scored against any opponent. On a night with no other obvious player bet, he's worth a shot at these odds.
Prediction: Blake Wheeler anytime goal (+400)
This game should feature strong defense and goaltending, with both teams loathe to make a mistake that could lead to an opposing goal. Nashville is an incredible 13-2-2 to the under in its previous 17 games on one day of rest, and has cashed the under in eight of its past 10 games against Western Conference foes.
Winnipeg comes in on a four-game under streak and has gone 4-10-1 O/U in its past 15 games against teams above .500 on the road. Given these trends, and the explosion of unders league-wide over the past 30 days, the safe play here is to take the under.
Prediction: Under 6 (-110)
This is as close as you can get to a team being a home underdog without that actually being the case – and while the odds might very well change between now and puck drop, its worth considering that the Jets have been sensational against elite road foes, having won eight consecutive games as a home 'dog. And while they've struggled against the Predators (1-4 in the last five) and the Central Division as a whole (also 1-4 in the last five), Winnipeg's 0.95 average goal margin at home is too good to ignore – and with the Predators at just 0.19 on the road for the season, we like the home side to pull this one out.
Prediction: Winnipeg (-110)