NHL PLAYOFF HANDICAPPING THOUGHTS AND TIPS
The National Hockey League gets so much tougher to handicap—and bet—during the Stanley Cup playoffs. As I’m writing this, I’m feeling the pain of Chicago Blackhawks’ fans who watched their team completely dominate the St. Louis Blues in every phase of the game through sixty minutes of hockey only to lose in overtime. Likewise, I’m feeling the pain of Chicago bettors who had the ‘right side’ and the ‘value price’ and nothing to show for it. On the other hand, St. Louis bettors were given a gift and will cash their tickets.
My job is trying to figure out what I learned from the first night of NHL playoff hockey that I can use going forward. Every year I sail right through the NHL regular season, more often than not turning a nice profit. And every year the transition to playoff hockey is a tough one. In any case, here are some thoughts about playoff hockey betting:
ZEBRAS DON’T CHANGE THEIR STRIPES
I’m not talking about referees, I’m talking about teams. More specifically, I’m talking about the style of play of individual teams as it relates to playoff totals. The kneejerk reaction is to bet playoff totals ‘Under’. That’s why every game on the board on the opening night of the playoffs has a 5 total. This happens every year. In the 2016 playoffs, even the Pittsburgh Penguins who played 7 OV and 1 push in their last 11 regular season games. To some extent, the fact that they had a 5 total was due to the market’s tendency to overrate and overvalue the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist—he’s looked very ordinary this year. Even so, the Rangers were also a strong ‘Over’ team down the stretch—they played only one ‘Under’ in their last 17 regular season games (10 OV, 6 push).
The old cliché that playoff hockey is a ‘different game’ is only true up to a point. Teams want to win and they know that they need to play a certain style to win. For that reason, don’t be afraid to bet ‘Over’ if the matchup and situation dictates. And don’t even think that because one game goes ‘Over’ that the next one is more likely to go ‘Under’. The ‘zig zag’ theory doesn’t even work in the NBA any more.
KEEP LOOKING FOR VALUE EVEN THOUGH IT HURTS
Teams can and do outplay their opponents and lose a game. Teams can and do outplay their opponent and lose an entire series. The Chicago Blackhawks played better than the St. Louis Blues in their 2016 opening round series. Chicago outshot St. Louis on a nightly basis but were stoned by Blues’ goalie Brian Elliott—who had been playing out of his mind for the last couple of months. The Blackhawks know that it can always be worse—like in 2015 when Winnipeg outplayed Anaheim in the first three games of their opening round series. The Jets took the lead into the third period in each of those games and lost them all. Down 0-3, they were easy pickings for the sweep. Good teams like Anaheim find ways to win like that and young teams like Winnipeg are often the victim.
In the longterm, however, the value side is the right side. It might not feel like it watching a -140 favorite like St. Louis get outplayed only to steal a win in overtime but in the long run you’ll cash a lot more tickets than you lose.
THINGS USUALLY EVEN OUT BUT NOT ALWAYS
As a corollary to the above—it’s easy to say that if Chicago keeps outshooting St. Louis like they did in Game One that things will eventually go their way. It didn’t. St. Louis had a hard time generating shots on goal last year in the playoffs and the Minnesota Wild were able to capitalize and upset the favored Blues. The difference this year is that Brian Elliott (and to a lesser extent backup Jake Allen) are playing well enough to steal games and even this entire series. And while it gets more difficult to ride a hot goaltender as a team gets deeper in the playoffs there have been plenty of instances where teams get to the Stanley Cup Finals with little more than a hot goaltender—case in point Jean Sebastien Giguire. In 2003, Giguire was named playoff MVP despite the fact that his Anaheim Ducks team lost in seven to the New Jersey Devils. All Giguire did in the playoffs was go 15–6 with a 1.62 GAA and .945 save percentage. The Ducks came very close to ‘stealing’ the Stanley Cup with a ‘hot goaltender’.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are by far the most intense and entertaining playoff in any sport. With this intensity comes a brutal cruelty felt by players, fans and obviously hockey bettors. The important thing to remember from a betting standpoint is that you shouldn’t ‘change your stripes’ and get away from sound handicapping fundamentals just because you’ve had some bad short term ‘puck luck’.