NHL Hockey Betting–Avoid The Sweep


With the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs underway it’s important to keep in mind that there are handicapping concepts that are unique to the playoffs. Many fans of sports betting in Canada are aware of these but it’s important to know them regardless of where you live. It’s easy to just assume that the analytical process that worked for you during the regular season will carry over to the postseason. That’s simply not the case. There’s so much during the year that is based on scheduling and motivational factors that don’t exist during the playoffs. For example, teams seldom have to play back-to-back games. Note that we said ‘seldom’–there was one ‘back to back’ situation in the 2016 playoffs as the Florida Panthers played Game 1 and Game 2 against the New York Islanders at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn on April 14 and 15.

One of the more intriguing concepts for playoff handicapping is trying to determine when teams have ‘quit’ on a series. By nature, hockey players are fighters and competitors—you don’t see many teams completely ‘phone it in’ like you do in the NBA. Even if a NHL team is on the verge of being swept 4 games to none in a best of seven series there’s seldom, if ever, any ‘quit’. In the history of sports there are four teams that have overcome a 3-0 deficit to come back and win a series—not surprisingly, three are NHL teams: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, the 2004 Boston Red Sox and the 2011 Philadelphia Flyers.


Obviously, coming back to win a series from a 3-0 deficit is a rare and monumental accomplishment. So what if we set the bar significantly lower? How likely is it that a NHL team down three games to zip will roll over and lose Game 4? What percentage of teams win Game 4 to prolong the series? How common is this occurrence?

When you look at all of the North American sports that employ seven game playoff series—Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) the team leading 3-0 completes the sweep well over 60% of the time. Overall, the team up 3-0 wins Game Four 63.3% of the time. The venue matters little—at home, the record is 61.6% and on the road the record 68.8%. Interestingly, when this situation occurs in the final round of a seven game series the leading team overwhelmingly wins Game Four and completes the sweep—77.8% of the time.

Now let’s look specifically at the National Hockey League. Pro hockey teams down 3-0 are marginally more likely to battle back in Game Four and avoid the sweep but not significantly so: the leading team wins Game Four and sweeps their opponent in 62.1% of these spots. And as was the case in the ‘all sports’ record, venue matters little—hockey teams win Game Four at home 62.5% of the time and on the road 60.9% of the time.

If we ‘drill down’ even more in this data we can see some interesting characteristics of each individual series round. Historically, hockey teams trailing 3-0 in a series have been more likely to win Game Four in the first round and in the semifinal round (or Conference Finals in the NHL). The second round figures are similar to the overall numbers. And like the ‘all sports’ record the team leading 4-0 in the Finals completes the sweep by winning Game Four well over 70% of the time.


1st round 58.3%
2nd round 62.5%
3rd round 58.1%
Finals 74.1%

A disclaimer or two—as you’ll often hear ‘past results do not guarantee future success’. Just because these things have occurred in the past doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work out this way in the future. Also worth noting—we’re not talking about a ‘statistically significant’ sample size here. For example, only 27 Stanley Cup Finals series in 123 years have had a 3-0 potential sweep situation. In other words, a team has had an opportunity to sweep the Stanley Cup Finals just over 21% of the time.

On the other hand, we’re not talking about ‘random occurrences’ here. That’s something that purely statistical analyses of sports betting often miss—there are a confluence of factors that produce athletic accomplishment and frequently we can identify some of them. In other words, teams just don’t wake up one morning and find themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals. You could ‘profile’ winning teams and find similar characteristics. For example, they’d almost certainly have a winning regular season record. Occasionally, a team will qualify for the playoffs with a season record under .500 but not often—and they don’t go on to win the Stanley Cup.


Hockey is unique among the ‘Best of Seven’ sports in one very important area—in hockey, it’s possible for one player to influence the outcome of a game. A hot goalie can change the dynamics of a series all by himself. This situation won’t occur often but a ‘desperation’ change to a backup goalie when a team is trying to avoid a four game sweep might be something worth considering. A goalie is able to determine and/or influence the outcome of a game regardless of how his teammates are playing. He’d also have a vested professional interest to play well and at least win Game Four.