NHL Hockey Betting–Don’t Get Suckered By The ‘Must Win’ Situation


In the past few weeks we’ve discussed a number of important handicapping concepts related to betting the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s a good reason for this—hockey is unique among betting sports as it is and there are also unique dynamics found in the NHL playoffs. As if that weren’t enough of a justification there are also very important differences between handicapping regular season and playoff hockey.

At the risk of over generalization, the primary message in all of these articles has been simple—don’t get roped in by what the ‘casual’ fans and bettors are doing. Don’t get influenced by what the mainstream sports media and even some of the hockey specific media are talking about. If you want to make money every year during the Stanley Cup playoffs it’s important to focus on finding the line value and betting accordingly.

How exactly this is done varies based on the individual dynamics of each NHL playoff series. One commonality—it’s essential to not get overly fixated on the ‘plotlines’ and situational elements of each individual game. At the time of this writing, we’re two games in to the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks. Unless something happens to significantly impact our qualitative assessments of each team—a season ending injury to Sidney Crosby, for example—there’s no reason for us to change our power rating from game to game.

The San Jose/Pittsburgh series is instructive for another reason. The Penguins were able to win Games One and Two on their home ice, each by one goal with the second game victory in overtime. The kneejerk reaction is to overreact to these outcomes. One way to do that is to ‘upgrade’ Pittsburgh but there’s nothing they’ve done to suggest that they’re a better team now than when the series started. They won two very close games—that’s great for the Penguins and their fans but it isn’t a reason to change our valuation of the team.


The more problematic tendency is to buy into the ‘must win’ hype. The Sharks are returning home down 0-2 and have been installed as a -145 favorite in Game Three. On the surface, that might look reasonable. Within the context of the playoffs, however, it looks dramatically less so. One thing worth noting is that Game Three will be the first time in eleven games that the Penguins have been an underdog. They went the entire series against Tampa Bay as a chalk—to the point that they were a -130 or -140 road favorite against a very capable Lightning team.

Here’s the question you need to be asking—what has happened to the valuations of either team to justify making San Jose a -145 home chalk? Don’t forget that the Penguins are a very capable road team and that the Sharks were a woeful 18-20-3 at home during the regular season. To their credit, San Jose has been a much better home team during the playoffs but that doesn’t change the point we’re making.

The only reason that San Jose is a -145 home favorite is simple: they *need* to win this game. While it’s not completely unprecedented for a team to come back from a 0-3 deficit in the National Hockey League playoffs it is exceedingly rare. It’s happened four times in history and only once in the Stanley Cup Finals. A win for San Jose and the series is at 2-1. The Sharks have a good chance of tying it up with a win in Game Four and then we’re ‘all level’ as they’d say in European soccer. A loss and they face a 0-3 deficit with two of the final four games on the Penguins’ home ice.

Most sports bettors with any sense are aware that teams in ‘must win’ situations are seldom a good bet. Not only are they under a ton of pressure the urgency of their situation is already factored into the line—and in most cases excessively so. That being said, there’s a real tendency to forget this obvious ‘macro’ lesson when looking at the ‘micro’ of an individual game. In the NHL, teams down 0-2 playing Game Three at home win that game roughly 54% of the time. That still doesn’t make the -145 price anything approximating a value. If the Sharks were a -115 home favorite here that would be a small overlay and we might have a different discussion. At -145 the implied probability is right around 60% meaning that the 30 cent difference is simply a ‘premium’ assessed Sharks’ backers for the ‘must win’ situation.

What many novice sports bettors have a hard time getting their head around is that if you regularly find the value in betting propositions and wager accordingly, the wins and losses take care of themselves. If you find line value you *will* make money in the long term—it’s the ‘buy low/sell high’ of sports betting. The storylines surrounding Game Three may be different than the ones for Game Two. But that does nothing to change the valuation of the teams involved. Pittsburgh getting ‘plus money’ is the value side and given the pressure on the Sharks in this spot the Penguins could likely have the emotional/subjective edges as well. Sports betting experts know that the value is *always* the play and the sooner you understand this the quicker you’ll join their ranks.