Like most major sports, handicapping the NHL in the last few games of the season is a very different challenge than it is for the rest of the season. In my experience, the NHL changes even more than most other sports do. If you aren't aware of the factors that make it different and fail to incorporate them not your handicapping then you are going to struggle to come out ahead at the betting window. Here are six factors you need to keep in mind to make sure you are actually betting on the team you think they are, and not just a very different version in the same uniform.
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Urgency - The NHL has always produced playoff races and races for division titles that have come down to the last game. The advent of a point for overtime losses a few years ago only served to further tighten races and make the races more intense. Any time you have a tight race you have teams playing with urgency to make sure that they make the playoffs, or that they earn home ice advantage. It's overly simplistic to assume that a team playing with urgency is going to play well, and many a bankroll has been decimated relying on that assumption. What you can assume, though, is that the urgency of the situation is going to have an effect on the team one way or the other. It is essential, then, to first ascertain whether the team is playing with more than usual at stake, and then to best guess how they will react to that adversity. Some teams have shown that they respond well to extra pressure, while others don't have the leadership and composure to rise to the occasion.
Health - The NHL season is incredibly long and grueling, and every team is beaten and battered before the postseason ever starts. You have to assume a certain level of poor health on every team, and know that you won't hear about most injury situations at this time of year anyway. What you need to be on the lookout for, though, are situations that go beyond the norm at this time. Because teams are going to be cranked up to full potential at this time, and because players aren't necessarily at their freshest, an injury to a key player can have even more of an impact now than it can have down the stretch. Vulnerable teams with their backs against the wall can also have their confidence shattered by a single injury if it happens to the wrong guy.
Administration status - You don't have to be an NHL insider to have a pretty good idea of which coaches are on their last legs right now, or which GMs are likely to be looking for a new job. There are also always coaches at this time of year that are coaching for their jobs. Teams that have staff in turmoil aren't going to perform the same way that a team with stability are going to. It's not always the case, but generally a team in a situation like this is going to be quicker to turn a deaf ear, and not quite as eager to go the extra mile. It's important to remember here that it's not just non-playoff teams that make changes.
Roster strategy - Some teams are going to use the last part of the season trying out new players, calling players up from the minors or junior and college hockey, and getting a sense of what the future holds under game intensity. Others will play the season out essentially as they have played the rest of their games - especially if they are in the playoffs or trying to get there. Obviously, the more changes a team goes through, the less certainty there is that it is going to perform like it always has.
The last hurrah - This time of year free agents who don't intend to re-sign with their current teams are looking to make the best last impression they can so that other general managers are attracted to signing them and paying as much as they can. Veterans who know that they are at the end of their careers will often also play at extra intensity to go out with a bang. Teams with more than their share of departing players, then, are more likely than the average team to enjoy a comparatively strong finish to the season.
The dreaded clinch - There is nothing harder to get a good sense of than how a team is going to respond once they have already clinched their playoff position. Some team will keep their foot on the gas for fear that once they slow down they won't be able to start up again. Others will take the Indianapolis Colts' approach - rest the starters and give no regard at all to the results until the playoffs start. Still, others will continue to work hard, but will struggle as their focus unintentionally loses some intensity. Once a team has clinched all that they are likely to accomplish you need to be especially careful as you try to determine the way they are most likely to react.