The NHL playoffs, more so than any other sport’s postseason, are about as different from the regular season as you can get.
Teams that dominated during the regular schedule suddenly find themselves on the brink of elimination, and clubs that squeaked into the playoff picture can catch fire and ride a hot goalie all the way to the Stanley Cup.
In order to help hockey bettors navigate the upside-down world of postseason puck, we share the best tips, tactics, and trends to follow when making the best NHL bets during the league's second season.
DON'T GET STUCK ON SEEDING
As mentioned above, the Stanley Cup playoffs are one of the most unpredictable postseasons in all major sports, with top-seeded teams routinely getting ousted in the first and second round by lower seeds.
Momentum often plays a bigger role in postseason success, with teams streaking into the playoffs continuing to play at a high level and those backing into the postseason often opening flat. Even higher seeds, which had the luxury of resting players in the final games of the regular season, run the risk of having their momentum cooled off by the time the tournament starts.
Hockey bettors should take a deeper dive into each team’s momentum and motivation over the last few weeks of regular season play, and see if that is something that could provide value to bet on – or against – in the opening round of the playoffs.
Like pitching in baseball, goaltending can singlehandedly win a playoff series. Year after year, hockey bettors witness incredible performances between the pipes and make a small mint riding these red-hot keepers.
On the other side of the coin, not having a proven No. 1 goalie can quickly put a wrap on the season – no matter how many goals a team can score.
When looking to narrow down the field to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, its always good look at the goaltenders first. Which ones are capable of carrying a team on their shoulders if need be? Who can steal a game, or even a series?
Teams like the New York Islanders (2.33 GAA, .925 SVP) and Boston Bruins (2.59 GAA, 9=.912 SVP) have kept opponents off the scoreboard thanks to solid goaltending all season. The San Jose Sharks, on the other hand, gave up 3.15 goals per game with a save percentage of just .889 from their netminders – lowest in the NHL.
DEPTH AND TOUGHNESS
Ever watch a hockey player get interviewed about his team’s deep postseason run? More often than not, the guy’s face looks like someone dropped a plate of spaghetti on the floor and then tried to sew it back together.
The NHL playoffs are a grueling challenge of teams’ overall talent and toughness. When a series goes six or seven games, the true depth of a roster is drawn to the surface.
Injuries can spoil an NHL bet faster than a Zdeno Chara slapshot and knowing which teams are healthy, getting healthy, and beat up entering the playoffs is a good way to gauge just where you should put your money.
Some teams that were banged up earlier this season are healthy now and could perform better than expected, while the opposite could be true of teams suffering through multiple injuries at the moment.
Teams that can get production from their third and fourth lines are the ones who survive, while clubs that rely on a few key players to carry the team often find themselves trading hockey sticks for golf clubs. Opponents draw up schemes to shadow and lock down these stars and force role players to beat them.
It's important to consider depth. Which teams can roll four lines and get steady production from their role players? Unlike other sports, the NHL playoffs aren't all about the superstars. It's the grinders that often decide which team is left standing in June.
Physicality also plays a major role in the outcome of the playoffs, with every hit looked at as an investment. Finesse teams can get worn down over the course of a series while teams that like to lay the lumber excel in the furious pace of the postseason.
Another big difference between the NHL playoffs and other sports’ tournaments is the importance - or lack thereof - when it comes to home ice.
In basketball and football, having the crowd on your side is crucial to a championship run. However, in hockey, bettors get great value with road teams in the postseason. Hot home teams like Dallas or the New York Rangers may be good fade bait while tough road clubs, like San Jose, can hold added pop on the road.
“Other than getting the final line change, there is really not much of an edge for the home team,” Covers Expert Steve Merril says of home-ice impact in the postseason. “Obviously, the crowd will be supporting them. But unlike the NBA, it does not influence officials as much, as penalties are normally called evenly and on an alternating makeup basis. NHL playoffs is the one sport where I feel home teams are generally overvalued, especially since travel is not a factor and both teams in a best-of-seven series have the same travel schedule.”
The NHL postseason is unique in that it doesn't carry as much momentum from one contest to the next. Teams quickly make adjustments, line changes and roster moves based on the game before and can have a completely different feel when they face off next. A high-scoring Game 1 can produce a low-scoring Game 2 with teams tightening up on defense.
Referees do tend to let a lot more slide in the postseason compared to regular season action, so it makes it even more important for teams to capitalize on those man-advantages when the whistle does blow.
“It is absolutely imperative to score on the power play, in order to discourage opponents from taking cheap shots at your best players,” says Covers Experts Jesse Schule.
Entering the postseason, the Tampa Bay Lightning boast the top power-play attack in the league with a 28.24 power-play percentage. At the bottom of the scale, the Nashville Predators boast the lowest power-play percentage in the playoffs at 12.94 percent.
When it comes to playing a man down, the Bolts are just as good at killing those penalties off, as they are at scoring with the man advantage. They rarely got burned with a man in the box ranking first in the NHL with an 85.02 penalty-kill percentage.
The Columbus Blue Jackets (who Tampa Bay plays in the first round) and Dallas Stars followed them, killing off 85.0 and 82.77 percent of their penalties respectively. The Colorado Avalanche have the worst penalty kill among playoff teams at 78.6 percent.