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If you had told the average hockey fan even a handful of years ago that the most exciting game on the schedule just under a month into the 2021-22 NHL season would be played between the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, I doubt they would believe you. And yet, here we are, with possibly the most hyped matchup of the year so far about to take place.

Let’s break down Saturday’s slate of games and make some picks.

Tampa Bay Lightning defeat Ottawa Senators -170

This isn’t exactly cutting edge insight, but these teams aren’t on the same level. The Senators came into the season with some level of excitement after they finished last season playing fun, mostly successful hockey. Except most failed to account for the fact that the success seemed to come only when they were way out of the playoffs already and all the pressure was off.

A decent start to the season has given way to only one win in their last seven games, while the Lightning are… the Lightning. They haven’t been off to the best start this year either, but they’re starting to round into form despite missing Nikita Kucherov once again, and Andrei Vasilevskiy has been on fire lately after a very rough start to the season.

Coming off of a tough loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs where John Tavares tied the game with 42 second left, and Tavares again factored in by drawing a slashing call from Tampa’s best defenceman in Victor Hedman in overtime, you can bet that the Lightning will be playing with a bit of fire in their bellies.

This is a team that, over the course of the previous three seasons, almost never loses two games in a row.

Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers go past regulation +340

The Hurricanes are on a nine-game win streak to start the season, while the Panthers are undefeated in regulation at 9-0-1. They’re the two hottest teams in the league, and they clash on Saturday night.

The Hurricanes are led by a bounce back season from 32-year-old goaltender Frederik Andersen, who has posted a .949 save percentage so far. Similarly, the Panthers are led by a bounce back season from 33-year-old goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has posted a .948 save percentage to date.

The Panthers have controlled 56.85 per cent of shot attempts so far this season at 5-vs-5 when adjusted for score effects and venue biases, while the Hurricanes have controlled 56.02 per cent of the same. In all situations, the two teams control 53.1 per cent and 53.45 per cent of shot attempts respectively.

Hold up, are we sure these two teams aren’t just the same team? The Hurricanes play slightly higher event hockey, creating more offence overall at even strength than the Panthers do, and the Hurricanes’ special teams have significantly better underlying numbers so far.

Overall, I think the Hurricanes are the slightly better team, but I still think this one is headed for extra time. 

Montreal Canadiens defeat Vegas Golden Knights -105

The Vegas Golden Knights at their peak would likely easily dismantle this version of the Montreal Canadiens, especially after trading for Jack Eichel, but with Eichel, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty all on long-term injured reserve, and with Nolan Patrick and Zach Whitecloud also hurt, they’ve struggled mightily to get anything going this year.

The Canadiens have been much in the same boat, but would you believe they’ve actually been improving of late? They’ve quietly climbed above a 50 per cent share of expected goals at 5-vs-5 hockey, while Vegas sits at about 45 per cent, and the Golden Knights are one of the few teams who have been less successful on the powerplay than the Canadiens have.

The Golden Knights also give up more expected goals per minute than anyone in the NHL while shorthanded, so despite the Canadiens’ awful special teams, they actually have the advantage in this one.

The biggest factor that weighs in the Canadiens favour though, is that Jake Allen has bounced back from every rough outing by being nearly unbeatable the following game this season. Following Allen’s last three losses, the next games he has posted an average save percentage of .989, allowing just a single goal in those three matchups. 

Colorado Avalanche defeat Columbus Blue Jackets -155

What on earth is going on with the Colorado Avalanche? After jumping out to a two-goal lead against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, who are the second-worst team in the league in terms of expected goals in all situations at a paltry 42 per cent of control, they allowed four straight goals in an eventual 5-4 overtime loss.

Not having Devon Toews is a big blow to the team to start the season, and now they’ve lost Cale Makar for a bit on top of that, but the team has been exceptionally sloppy and unfocused to start.

It doesn’t help that their goaltenders are giving up a full goal per game more than they should be expected to based on the shots they’re facing, but the vaunted Avalanche offence also only ranks 19th in the league after ranking first last year. The talent is there, but we haven’t seen the execution this year.

Even so, I can’t see the loss to the Blue Jackets in their last game, especially considering the way it happened, sitting well in that dressing room, so I expect a charged up Avs team on Saturday night.