NHL Hockey Betting–The ‘Zig Zag’ Theory In Hockey?


Sports betting ‘systems’ have a very short lifespan when it comes to effectiveness. It doesn’t take long for bookmakers to catch up, once profitable situations to revert to the norm or some combination thereof. While sharp players know this, it takes a lot longer for the ‘public’ to realize when a handicapping concept that was once relevant has run its course. So many examples of this but the most famous is likely the ‘Monday Night Football home underdog’. This hasn’t really been a profitable system since the mid 1970’s but there are probably still ‘squares’ that think this is a strong situation—this despite the fact that Monday Night Football doesn’t even exist anymore in its original form.

Another example of a handicapping system that was once money in the bank but is no longer useful is the NBA playoff ‘zig zag theory’. It worked like this—bet on the team that lost the previous game outright in any NBA playoff series. It makes sense in theory– a short series brings its own urgency and teams do have a tendency to play better after a bad performance. Meanwhile, teams that are ‘up’ in a series have a tendency to ‘relax’ and not have the intensity they displayed in the previous game. All a bettor once needed to do was bet on the team that lost the previous game and go to the window and collect their money.

This quit working effectively near the turn of the century (the 20th, not the 19th century). Since 2000, playing the ‘zig zag’ theory in the NBA playoffs would have hit a whopping 51.6%, so slightly over breakeven but not enough to worry about it. So much has changed since 2000, not the least of which is the fact that bookmakers figured it out. By the time the public had become enamored of the ‘zig zag theory’ the guys on the other side of the counter were adjusting the line accordingly. There’s also been a huge change in the competitive nature of the NBA—it’s become a very top heavy league and just doesn’t have the parity it did twenty years ago.


Unlike some handicapping systems, however, the premise behind the zig zag theory was a valid one. Is it possible to apply a similar concept to NHL hockey? I would say ‘yes’, at least to some degree. Not that NHL linesmakers are oblivious to this fact. In the NHL, the dynamic in a series between evenly matched teams does play out like the ‘zig zag’ theory. The trick is to identify which teams are ‘evenly matched’. You also have to identify matchups between teams that can win on the road. For this reason, using the ersatz ‘zig zag’ theory in the NHL playoffs works better in the later rounds. Home ice isn’t a big deal at this level and the ebb and flow of competitive intensity plays out regardless of where the game is played.


Not every series play out in this format. Most, however, are very evenly matched and will likely follow the ‘zig zag’ model. I wouldn’t advise betting on it blindly, but it is something to keep in mind as you handicap the games. Watch enough playoff hockey and you can see this competitive ebb and flow play out. I would require a higher than average ‘burden of proof’ were I looking to play against it.