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70% Winners in Backing ‘Bounce Back’ Playoff Favorites: Stanley Cup Betting Trends


NHL Playoffs Create Unique Opportunities for Hockey Bettors

The NHL playoffs is in someways a different game when compared to the regular season. Contests are faster, more physical, incredibly intense, and highly competitive. Therefore many experienced sports bettors and hockey analysts will attest that under such conditions one must formulate their NHL picks differently than in the regular season.

While I don't disagree, keep in mind that the teams who earn top playoff spots via a grueling 82-game regular season do so with strong performances, proficiency, good coaching, and deep lineups week after week. Although we will see our fair share of upsets during the next two months, teams who are expected to win individual games, or series matchups, are favored for good reason. For one, they have an entire season's worth of data to support them! A higher goal differential, for example, almost always equates to a greater winning percentage and thus a stronger team, and squads with better puck possession under 5v5 situations do too. Bad luck or bad play can derail a good team in the short term, but what sets many playoff squads apart from the rest of their peers is their ability to properly make adjustments, utilize their strengths, and fall back on individual talents to prevent a continual streak of poor performances.

Using this rationale, I like to look for favored teams in the playoffs who I suspect will rebound after a run of bad games. Take this angle, for example: wager the favorite in a game where the underdog has more goals in their last two contests with less than or equal to the number of shots on goal during that time span. Since 2007, this situation sports a 70% win rate (91-38) with average closing NHL odds of -150. Averaging roughly 15 plays a season,  you can see the wins versus losses breakdown during this time span, and the return of investments if one flat bet $100 on each game in the chart below:

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Whether the team was outplayed, had bad luck, or ate poisoned chicken salad the night before, expect the favorite to find improvement, or earn their fair share of good fortune next time out. The logic supporting our angle is to back the team favored to win, who we can assume, for whatever reasons, was forced to chase the majority of the game in their last two contests. How can we make this assumption? And why is chasing bad? On average good teams create more shots than their opponents, but playoff teams are so evenly matched that parity is often the norm.

New advanced shooting metrics, such as Fenwick and Corsi, have revealed that squads who are behind in the score tend to open up their play and fire the puck more often, yet for a lower percentage than when tied or ahead in the game. Hence teams who are winning in a contest often play more cautiously and protect the lead than teams trailing, who tend to perform more recklessly and inefficiently. Indeed, a lot of playoff success is found by teams playing from the goal forward, concentrating on solid defending and maintaining puck possession. In 2014, our query's 13 winners averaged roughly 52 minutes down a goal or more in their previous two contests with a median of 45 minutes. The favorite, who online sportsbooks and the public also expected to win 81% of the time in at least one of their last two contests, didn't earn a playoff spot playing this ineffectively.

As Alan Ryder pointed out in 2008 with his seminal article “The Ten Laws of Hockey Analytics,” one can expect mean reversion in the sport. At some point, the breaks will go the other way and talent will shine through. As always, use this information to help support your leans, and always be cautious of small sample size conclusions. Best of luck!