NHL Hockey Betting–The Theory of Bad Betting Lines In Playoff Hockey

The Theory of Bad Betting lines in Playoff Hockey

The goal of the sports bettor is to find value and bet accordingly. ‘Squares’ try to ‘pick winners’. ‘Sharps’ try to ‘find value’. The sooner you’re able to understand this distinction and implement it into your own handicapping and betting the sooner you’ll become a profitable gambler. Value doesn’t care about which teams you’re a ‘fan’ of, which teams play on TV the most or which teams sell the most merchandise. Value is a cold, hard qualitative assessment extrapolated into numerical form. One of the smartest things anyone has ever told me about sports betting: ‘Squares bet teams, sharps bet numbers’.

The reality, however, is that it’s not easy to find value. Sports touts try to sell games every day screaming that ‘Vegas has set a bad number’ on this game. It just doesn’t happen as often as they suggest. In fact, you can’t really tell if a linesmaker has set a bad number unless you’ve got access to how much money he’s holding on each side of a game. It’s important to remember what the goal of the handicapper is—he’s not trying to ‘predict’ who will win each game and by how much. His job is to hang a number that will get good ‘two way action’. If he does that he’s put up a good number. You might not think it’s an accurate reflection of the matchup but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad number.

For a serious student of handicapping the NHL playoffs are interesting because in a seven game series a linesmaker can make adjustments from game to game. He can factor injuries and ‘urgency’ for a team facing elimination into the betting line. You’re getting several repetitions of the same matchup and obviously the roster changes very little from game to game. The non-quantitative factors—what are also called ’emotional/subjective factors’ are the only things that change. Keep one thing in mind—how the betting public reacts to a situation has more impact on the line movement than a situation itself.


So what do you do with a series where the lines don’t move or experience any significant correction? Follow up question—what do you do with a series where based on your analysis the lines are way off and the correction you expect never comes? In general terms when you see betting lines that don’t move in response to what happens on the ice it means that they’re being influenced by some external factor. The most common factor is overwhelming public support for one team.

What gave me the idea to write this is the current Eastern Conference Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in my 20+ years as a sports bettor. The series price opened at or slightly above -200 at most books. The Game One price was roughly the same. These numbers surprised me but what has happened since has been more surprising: the lines haven’t experienced any substantial movement from money line bets.

As playoff series go, the Penguins/Lightning matchup has produced more dramatic moments than usual. Tampa Bay wins Game One. Ben Bishop gets injured and the reaction from the mainstream sports media is hysterical. Backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy comes in and plays extremely well. The hysterical sports media calms down. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin struggle. Then they don’t struggle. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray plays out of his mind. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray starts to struggle. Marc-Andre Fleury returns and he struggles. Tampa Bay wins Game Six in overtime giving them a chance to clinch at home. The Penguins have to decide which of their struggling goalies to start in Game Six.

And despite all of this drama combined with the usual ebb and flow of the series the lines haven’t moved. The Penguins have been right around a -200 favorite in every game at home and a -130 to -150 favorite in Tampa. In a very closely contested series where it’s apparent that both teams are of similar skill you would think that the betting lines would begin to reflect that. Instead, Pittsburgh remains a huge chalk. Tampa Bay went 25-13-3 at home this year and head into Game Six with a 10-4 record in the playoffs. Yet they have been underdogs in all three games at home.

Tampa Bay was an undervalued team at the start of the playoffs where they were 20/1 to win the Stanley Cup at some stores. That’s ridiculous for a defending Conference Finalist. That’s not the reason for this pricing. It has to be that Pittsburgh is receiving overwhelming public money. The likely scenario is that on balance the ‘squares’ are on Pittsburgh and the ‘sharps’ are on Tampa Bay. Sports books are getting good two way action so they see no reason to make a major adjustment.

I had no idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins were such a popular team. Of course lest we forget, Sidney Crosby is the captain of Canada’s national team. That’s the only thing that could possibly result in the line movement dynamics—or lack thereof—that we’ve seen in this series. It’s the only scenario I can think of that results in people willingly laying a chalk price with Pittsburgh every game without regard to the ebb and flow of the series.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the tactical approach for making money off a series with this kind of strange line movement.