If you’re thinking about betting the NHL playoffs in the future, know this: when in doubt, take the underdog with the spread. Before getting into some statistics that support this notion, I want to explain the theory first.
The NHL playoffs are widely regarded as the most competitive postseason in the four major sports, and it’s really not up for debate. For instance, only four of the past sixteen President’s Cup trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup (the President’s Cup is awarded to the team with the best overall record). Five of those teams-the ’00 Blues, ’06 Red Wings, ’09 Sharks, ’10 Capitals, and ’12 Canucks-lost in the first round. Moreover, since 2010, only two 1 seeds have even made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. These kind of upsets just doesn’t happen in the NBA and it is rare in both the MLB and NFL. So, in short, the notion of a “favorite” in the NHL playoffs is a myth.
In addition to games being very competitive, I’ve discussed before how underdogs are more valuable in lower-scoring games because there are fewer possible outcomes. This is especially true in the playoffs because goal scoring tends to dip compared to the regular season.
Let’s look at last Saturday’s Game 3 in San Jose, where 5 total goals were scored. Pittsburgh was the underdog with the spread, meaning that all the Penguins needed to do was keep the game within 1.5 goals in order to cover. If, for the sake of argument, we knew that only 5 goals would be scored beforehand, then we’d know there could be six possible outcomes. Pittsburgh could win the game by scores of 5-0, 4-1, or 3-2 while San Jose could also win either 5-0, 4-1, or 3-2. In four of those six outcomes, the Penguins cover the spread. The only situations in which they do not cover are if the Sharks win either 4-1 or 5-0. However, given how competitive the NHL playoffs are-especially in the Cup Finals, the odds of the Sharks blowing out the Penguins are slim.
So now that we are grounded in theory, let’s look at some numbers that support taking underdogs with the spread in the NHL playoffs. In these Stanley Cup Finals, the underdog with the spread has covered in every game: San Jose was a 1.5 goal underdog in Games 1 & 2 and covered despite losing both games while Pittsburgh managed to cover the spread in Game 3 before winning outright last Monday night. Now, it is important to note that there is extra “juice” on the underdog with the spread. This means that the odds are usually listed anywhere from -180 to -300 for the underdogs, which means that you would have to bet $180 to win $100, for instance.
It’s important to be aware of this because you can’t expect to make a profit with this strategy unless the underdogs cover a high percentage of the time. But the good news is that if we narrow down our sample size to all playoff games played after the quarterfinals when some of the weaker teams in the tournament are knocked out, then this strategy is very profitable.
When I noticed this trend last year, I started logging the performance of every underdog starting with Game 5 of the Tampa Bay vs Montreal semifinal series. From then until Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, underdogs went 21-4 (.840). But the better news was that if you were to bet to win $100 in every one of those games, you would have came out with a profit of $1,170. Even for smaller-scale bettors like me, betting to win $10 on each of those games could have yielded an $170 profit.
This trend has carried over to this year’s playoffs as well. For example, if you took the underdog in every Penguins playoff game starting with the Washington series, you’d be making Jordan Belfort money because the underdog with the spread in those games has gone a remarkable 16-1 (.941). Additionally, if we look at all the games played from Game 1 of the first semifinal series (Lightning/Islanders), then underdogs are still a healthy 32-10 (.762) covering the spread.
Simply put, taking the underdogs in NHL playoff games to cover a 1.5 goal spread is as sound of an investment you can make when betting on sports. Yes, you do have to risk more in order to win. Also, since I’m by no means a professional when it comes to this stuff- ALWAYS BET RESPONSIBLY. I’m just someone who enjoys following sports not only as a fan, but from an analytical point of view as well- I’m not necessarily someone to take financial advice from.
Having said that, I feel very confident taking the Sharks +1.5 goals on Thursday night because recent history is clearly on my side.