HOCKEY TEAMS FIGHTING FOR PLAYOFF POSITION AREN’T ‘LOCKS’
A frequent mantra of any serious sports handicapper is that teams in ‘must win’ situations seldom do. More specifically, they’re rarely a good betting value. In most situations you should look to play on the opponent against a team in a ‘must win’ situation. You’ll find an in-depth analysis of this concept elsewhere on the website but there are several very good reasons for this. First, the ‘must win’ scenario isn’t a secret. The public knows it and more importantly the bookmaker knows it. Since the book knows that the public knows it—and will bet it—he shades the line accordingly. The public invariably bets into this already inflated line inflating it even more. The good value on the other side becomes an even better value.
Another important thing that the public often forgets—teams that are in ‘must win’ situations are usually there for a reason. Teams that took care of business during the regular season don’t have to worry about playoff seeding down the stretch. For marginal teams in particular, this urgency isn’t always motivating—it can often make a team ‘tight’ and prone to mistakes. Conversely, the opponent they’re facing often has no pressure at all and can play ‘loose’. If they have some sort of intrinsic motivation to play ‘spoiler’ so much the better.
THE NHL HAS A LOT OF PARITY TOP TO BOTTOM
The concepts above are valid in any team sport but may be most effective in the NHL. There’s a lot of parity in the NHL and that doesn’t change below the ‘Mendoza line’ for playoff qualification. One of the great things about hockey is the competitive desire and mental toughness of the players. Every player in every sport says they ‘hate to lose’. This may be true, but in most team sports bottom feeder teams invariably ‘play out the string’ near the end of the season offering little resistance for teams with playoff aspirations.
NHL players are just wired differently. They hate to lose but they hate to be embarrassed even more. No team likes to be viewed as a ‘doormat’. The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently in deep ‘rebuilding mode’. They’ve jettisoned every veteran with a guaranteed contract and now have a team comprised of players that would be ‘4th liners’ at best on most NHL teams combined with prospects that should be with the AHL Toronto Marlies at this stage of their development.
Late last season, the Maple Leafs faced the Detroit Red Wings on the road. ‘On paper’ it looked like one of the biggest mismatches of the year. The Red Wings desperately needed points to hold on to a wild card playoff spot and facing a divisional rival that was 1-19 in divisional games for the season looked like an automatic win.
It wasn’t—Toronto gave their best full game effort of the season and shocked the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena 1-0. It was the only the second win in 10 games for Toronto and on this night a team that is all but ‘tanking’ games to get a high draft pick played their hearts out. This might be an extreme scenario, but it’s not uncommon in the NHL. One night later the three worst teams in the Western Conference went 2-1 against higher ranked rivals. The Calgary Flames—a team that had won twice in their last ten games—ripped the St. Louis Blues who were playing for sole possession of first place in the rugged Central Division. The only loss was the Edmonton Oilers who played tough in a horrible tactical matchup against the Nashville Predators before losing 3-2.
LOOK BEYOND THE MATCHUP TO THE CONTEXT
It’s possible to conclude that on ‘any given day’ any team can get lucky and pull off a win. That may be true, but a look at the context of each matchup during your handicapping revealed situations that were ripe for a bottom feeding team to upset a playoff level opponent.
–Look For Underdogs Coming Off Of ‘Ugly’ Losses: The night before the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the Detroit Red Wings they were embarrassed 4-0 at Ottawa. The game before the Calgary Flames upset the St. Louis Blues they were manhandled by the Arizona Coyotes on their home ice. Even for teams that are going nowhere in the standings these embarrassing losses are often followed by very strong efforts.
–Look For Favorites Coming Off Of A Series Of Tough Games: St. Louis entered the aforementioned game with Calgary riding a six game winning streak and having run off victories against high level opposition—Anaheim, Calgary, Minnesota and Dallas. Even the best teams can’t maintain that level of intensity and tonight they faced a motivated opponent that provided no intrinsic motivation. Few teams have enough talent to overcome a substandard effort and definitely not in the NHL.
–Look For Situations Where ‘It’s Personal’: Observant readers probably already noticed this subplot about the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings game. The Maple Leafs’ current coach, Mike Babcock, is the former coach of…the Detroit Red Wings. Babcock is the winningest coach in Red Wings history but after 458 wins and a Stanley Cup champion they decided against giving him a contract extension. Babcock might say this matchup ‘isn’t personal’ but guess what? It’s personal. No team wants to be responsible for embarrassing their coach and particularly coming off an ugly loss. The Red Wings filed the game against Toronto as a ‘W’ before it started and were looking ahead to a Tuesday game against their closest wildcard challenger, the red hot Philadelphia Flyers.
These situations won’t always yield victories but since you’re getting sizable underdog prices they don’t have to. When you’re getting prices like Toronto +200 and Calgary +140 you’ve got a decent margin for error. There are approximately ten games left in the NHL regular season and you might very well find more opportunities like these. Just look beyond the statistical matchup for the specific game and consider the broader context.