Betting the NHL Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 04/04/2008
After a seemingly endless regular season, the NHL playoffs are now just around the corner. For many bettors, that means that they will be paying attention to hockey for the first time all year. The playoff fields and the first round matchups are not yet set, but that doesn't mean that we can't start to think about the strategies which will lead us to success at the betting windows (or their virtual equivalents). If you will be wading into betting Canada's favorite sport for the first time this year in the next couple of weeks then you will want to keep these six tips in mind.
Ride a hot team - It would generally seem like the best strategy would always be to bet the superior team, but that isn't always the case in the NHL. There are an incredible number of teams that have recently made the finals or won it all when they weren't highly placed in the standings going in because they got hot at the right time - Calgary, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Carolina, and so on. The reason isn't always clear, but hockey -- more than other sports -- lends itself to a plucky upstart making an unlikely run. When Calgary made their run to the Final, for example, they had been out of the playoffs for a decade, they didn't make the playoffs with a lot of room to spare, and they were sizable underdogs in each of the three series that they won, but they pulled it off by finding improbable ways to pull out wins. Instead of trying to understand it or figure out when it is going to end you can often make your money by closing your eyes and riding these waves.
Goaltending matters beyond all else - Goalies are always important in hockey, but never more so than in the playoffs. A hot goaltender can do wonders for a team and carry them much further than they would otherwise go. Calgary had Miika Kiprusoff, Carolina had Cam Ward, and Edmonton had Dwayne Roloson. There are dozens of goalies who have found their stride in the playoffs despite not having a strong record going into them. Some use it as the launching point for a superstar career - Montreal's Ken Dryden first emerged in a playoff run and went on to be one of the all-time greats. Others just capture the magic for a small time - Steve Penney, another Montreal goalie, won a Cup as a rookie and was barely heard from again. There is no telling what makes a goalie take off in the playoffs. Regular season success isn't necessarily an indicator - Marty Turco of Dallas is as good as you can be in the regular season, but he has made a habit of disappointing in the playoffs. You can't tell in advance, but if you see a goalie who is playing out of his mind then chances are that he has a few more similar games in him, so bet accordingly.
The proven scorers earn their money - Players all react differently to the intensity of the playoffs, but as a general rule the truly elite players step up and find a new level in the postseason. If you are evaluating two teams and they seem to be basically a wash but one has a world-class player while the other doesn't then it is probably safe to use the presence of that player as a tie-breaker as long as he is healthy. I'm only talking about the true superstars here, though, not the guys who can make the all-star team once in a while.
When in doubt, pick the Canadians - The Stanley Cup is packed with mythology for all players, but even more so for Canadians. Hockey is essentially religion in Canada, and every kid who grows up in the country has imagined winning the Stanley Cup a hundred times. The playoffs get massive television ratings in Canada, and are front-page news across the country. Because of all that, Canadian players tend to have a more intense focus when it comes to winning the hardware. Most of the recent finalists have been built around a Canadian roster that has played gritty, feisty hockey. All things being equal, I would always take the team that is composed mostly of Canadians over one that relies heavily on European stars. I might be biased because I am a Canadian myself, but the facts support the case.
Start with the season series - In the first few rounds of the playoffs teams are playing squads that they have already seen several times during the season. What happened in the regular season series isn't always the key to what will happen in the playoffs, but it is a very good place to start. If a team has been unable to handle a particular aspect of another team's play during the regular season then it's probably a good bet that they won't be able to handle it in the playoffs. This is especially true in the first round when teams can be mismatched because of seeding.
Measure the defensemen - At the heart of a strong team is often a dominant defensive player. Last year's champions, Anaheim, had as good a crew on the blueline as any team in recent memory with Scott Neidermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin all being among the elite in the league, and the first two being among the very best on ice. Pronger was also integral to Edmonton's run. Calgary had Robin Regehr at the head of a very deep and talented defensive corps. Detroit has found success thanks to Nicholas Lidstrom, while players like Adam Foote and Rob Blake keyed the success of Colorado. At the heart of most great teams is a great defender or two.