Over the past five years or so that I have really followed playoff hockey, I have noticed a few things about Game 7’s that I want to share with you today given that the Penguins and Lightning will play in one tonight. I’m really excited about this because of all the betting knowledge I have (or wish I had, lol), I’m very confident with my Game 7 hockey bets because, for once, my theories of what I think should happen are confirmed by plenty of data over a large sample size.
So here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll take you through three observations I’ve had while watching Game 7’s and confirm whether they are true. And once I’ve done that, I’ll explain the implications of those theories that will apply to not only tonights game in Pittsburgh, but for any future Game 7 in hockey. Now let’s drop the puck.
Theory #1 about Game 7’s: The referees put the whistles away, which results in the total goals going UNDER
The greatest hockey game I ever attended was Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment as loud as when Nathan Horton scored to put the Bruins ahead 1-0. But what was really impressive about that game was how there were zero penalties called. That factoid had always perplexed me. Did the Bruins and Lightning really not do anything wrong? Sure, they probably played close to perfect; but there is no way there wasn’t an interference here or a high-stick there.
The most logical explanation as to why there were no penalties called in that Game 7 was that the referees put away their whistles. After all, in a game of such high magnitude, the referees probably feel that it is not their business to influence the game unnecessarily.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that more goals come off a power-play. So the main implication from referees putting their whistles away, in theory, is that goal-scoring will decline. But has this happened in Game 7’s?
It has. The average number of power plays in an NHL game over the past five years is 6.42. Yet in Game 7’s over that same amount of time, the average number of power plays is only 5.24. And that number is actually a bit distorted by a couple outlier Game 7’s in the 2014 playoffs in which the Los Angeles Kings played in three Game 7’s where there were a total of 24 power plays.
Meanwhile, the total has gone under 5.5 goals (which is the O/U line for tonight’s Pittsburgh/Tampa game) in 31 of the 49 Game 7’s since the lockout in 2006. This isn’t all because of the fewer power plays called- I’d argue that most playoff teams typically have strong defenses, which makes for lower scoring games. But clearly there is a trend with many years of data behind it: referees call fewer penalties in Game 7’s and that leads to lower scoring games. Theory Confirmed.
Theory #2 about Game 7’s: In addition to Game 7’s being lower-scoring, the high intensity results in extremely competitive games, which gives value to the UNDERDOG with the SPREAD
We now know that Game 7’s are usually low-scoring, which provides value on the under. But there is another major implication of this trend. In general, underdogs have greater value in lower scoring games, particularly with the spread. For instance, one popular betting strategy in the NFL is to take underdogs in games projected to be low-scoring. As the article I linked states, “The basic philosophy was that low-scoring games would have a more narrow range of potential outcomes, and this would disproportionately benefit the team getting points.”
Let’s think about what this would mean for hockey. Say there will only be three goals scored in a given game. That would give us four possible outcomes: the home team could win 3-0, the home team could win 2-1, the road team could win 3-0, or the road team could win 2-1. We’ll assume that the home team is favored by a 1.5 goals with the spread, as they commonly are. In three of these four outcomes with the exception of the home team winning 3-0, the road team covers the 1.5 goal spread in a low scoring game. Additionally, if you think about the probability of the home team winning 3-0 in a Game 7, it’s probably unlikely to happen because the two teams are evenly matched since they’d require a seventh game to decide the series.
In contrast, a higher scoring game leads to much more variance in the results. If seven total goals are scored then there are many more outcomes, which gives the underdog less value. So to summarize, it’s for these reasons why there is value on the underdog in a low-scoring hockey game.
There’s another major reason why underdogs have value with the spread in Game 7’s. It’s very simple: these games are intense. Every inch is fought for, every puck is contested. Given that the margin of error is so slim in hockey, the difference between winning or losing these games is so close. Check out the highlights from this past year’s Game 7 between St. Louis and Chicago, which the Blues won 3-2, and fast forward to 2:20 to see what I’m talking about.
I can’t feel too bad for Chicago because they’ve won three cups since 2010, but man is that rough. Do you see what I mean, though, about these games being hotly contested? I guess if you aren’t convinced, I know Youtube is littered with more awesome Game 7 highlights.
Now is the time I break out the crucial stat: in the 49 Game 7’s since the lockout, the road team has covered the 1.5 goal spread 41 times. That’s good for a .837 win percentage with the spread, meaning you win money betting the underdog with the spread roughly 84% of the time. Sure, you do have to lay more juice betting the underdog (Tampa, for instance, is -165 with the spread tonight). But that .837 win percentage over the last ten years looks even better if I narrow the sample size to every Game 7 since 2010. In that stretch, road teams have covered the spread 33 out of 36 times (.917). To save you the trouble of looking through past playoff results on Wikipedia, here is a list of those 36 games with the most recent games appearing first (**two asterisks denote that the road team covered the spread, home team in italics)
San Jose 5, Nashville 0
**St. Louis 6, Dallas 1
**Nashville 2, Anaheim 1
**St. Louis 3, Chicago 2
Tampa Bay 2, Detroit 0
**Washington 2, New York Islanders 1
**New York Rangers 4, Washington 3
**Tampa Bay 2, New York Rangers 0
**Chicago 5, Anaheim 3
**New York Rangers 2, Philadelphia 1
**Minnesota 5, Colorado 4
**Los Angeles 5, San Jose 1
**Montreal 3, Boston 1
**New York Rangers 2, Pittsburgh 1
**Los Angeles 6, Anaheim 2
**Los Angeles 5, Chicago 4
**New York Rangers 5, Washington 0
**Boston 5, Toronto 4
**Detroit 3, Anaheim 2
**Chicago 2, Detroit 1
**Los Angeles 2, San Jose 1
**New York Rangers 2, Ottawa 1
**Washington 2, Boston 1
**New Jersey 3, Florida 2
**New York Rangers 2, Washington 1
Philadelphia 5, Buffalo 2
**Boston 4, Montreal 3
**Tampa Bay 1, Pittsburgh 0
**Vancouver 2, Chicago 1
**San Jose 3, Detroit 2
**Boston 1, Tampa Bay 0
**Boston 4, Vancouver 0
**Montreal 2, Washington 1
**Detroit 6, Phoenix 1
**Montreal 5, Pittsburgh 2
**Philadelphia 4, Boston 3
The theory is confirmed and I hope I make this crystal clear: the road underdog is basically a lock in Game 7’s with the spread. HAMMER IT! HAMMER IT! HAMMER IT!
Theory #3 about Game 7’s: Home ice advantage gives value to the HOME TEAM with the MONEYLINE
Home field advantage is one of those expressions I usually roll my eyes at. But might there be some validity to it in hockey? Home teams are 97-69 (.584) all time in Game 7’s, but that doesn’t really give home teams any extra advantage in a Game 7 because home teams typically win about 59% of the time in hockey.
But home teams do have one significant advantage in Game 7’s. In 15 of the past 25 Game 7’s, the home team has had more power play opportunities than the road team. On average, home teams have also averaged 2.88 power plays per game during this time while road teams have only averaged 2.36 power plays per game. That’s certainly not an enormous difference, but it is noteworthy because it might mean that, for whatever reason, the home team might get an extra opportunity on a man advantage.
Ultimately though, home teams are by no means a lock in Game 7’s. In fact, they are only 23-26 since the lockout, which points to profitability in taking the underdog with the moneyline, if anything. Theory NOT confirmed.
Implications for Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay Tonight
Odds courtesy of Sportsbetting.ag
Take Tampa Bay +1.5, -165
Road teams have covered in 33 of the past 36 Game 7’s and 41 of the past 49. Given that Game 7’s also tend to be lower-scoring, this gives added value to the Lightning. Plus, one could argue that it helps that the Lightning have already taken two out of three in Pittsburgh.
Take UNDER 5.5 Goals
The under in Game 7’s since the lockout has gone 31-18. There are two additional reasons to take the under as well. First, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay ranked 5th and 6th in goals against in the regular season. They certainly have the capability of tightening up their defenses when it matters most. And second, the total has gone over in the past four games between these teams. This might make one hesitate on take the under, but don’t be too concerned. This could lead to a majority of bettors to taking the over, which could lead to less juice on the under. Plus, this is gambling after all. There has to be some risk!
If you’re feeling the Moneyline, don’t be afraid to take TAMPA BAY +185
If it’s likely that Tampa Bay will cover the 1.5 goal spread and if it’s likely that the game will be low scoring, this also provides great value on the Lightning at +185. I won’t be betting the moneyline because I’m more confident in my spread and under bets, but it makes sense to take Tampa given their value.
I also wouldn’t be afraid to take PITTSBURGH with the Moneyline, but only as part of a PARLAY
I think the Penguins are going to win the game. It will be close, probably 2-1 or 3-2. But I think there is some validity to my theory that home teams receive more power play opportunities in Game 7’s. And if Pittsburgh gets an extra opportunity, I think their deadly power play unit featuring Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, in particular, will capitalize. But even though I think Pittsburgh will win, I’m not feeling confident enough to take them at -210. Given their risk, I might take them later as part of a parlay.