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Hidden Factors in Ice Hockey Betting

Hockey Players
There is a phenomenon in American ice hockey in which fans who had searched for a reason not to cheer the hometown NHL club suddenly start looking desperately for reasons to do so.

It usually involves a bad team that begins the year 22-10 or 25-14, and temporarily leads the division.

(Caller on talk radio)

“You know Bob, I saw that little slug-fest at the end of the (Insert losing Midwestern team) game last night, when they were beating New York 5-1 for their 5th win in a row. I don’t really pay much attention to hockey. But man, it is good finally get to cheer for a team with some passion.”

“Passion” is often lucky bounces in the 1st quarter of an NHL season. Any woebegone club is liable to get excited and instigate a fight while winning 5 in a row. Fair-weather supporters just tell themselves that the players are trying harder and are now worthy of their dollars. As bounces inevitably start going against the team, the fan will again lose interest in a roster that “just doesn’t have any passion.”

Luck plays a big role in the outcome of nickel-and-dime hockey games. That’s why leagues play 50+ game regular seasons, 82+ games in the NHL’s case.

Sure, a few clubs will manage to reach the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament with aid of Lady Luck in the final points-chase. But the truly solid entries will be from teams that had already earned a spot with weeks to go.

The NHL’s 7-game-series postseason format all but eliminates the role of luck. It is impossible to play poorly and beat a solid playoff team with fluky bounces alone.

10-year-old Canadian kids who play or watch hockey understand that.

Writers at Inside Hook apparently don’t.

The Myth of Lucky Pond Shinny

In 1999-2000, the St. Louis Blues won the President’s Cup with the most regular-season points of any NHL club. They were facing the “lowly” San Jose Sharks, a #8 seed in the conference, in an opening playoff series.

The effect of a President’s Cup on a city, a fan base, and its media can be enormous.

As in, enormously bad. True to form, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published cartoons on the sports page featuring monsters in Blues unis strangling meek pencil-necks in Sharks jerseys. 12 hours later, an overconfident group of skill players waltzed onto home ice to face a San Jose team full of deadly checkers and grinding playoff veterans like Dave Lowry. Coached by a stern Darryl Sutter, the Sharks punished the Blues’ bodies from pillar to post for 7 games.

A St. Louis defenseman got so tired, he tossed the puck in his own net.

When San Jose prevailed in Game 7, the explanation heard most from Blues announcers and personnel was “luck.” The Sharks had scored too many “lucky goals,” they said.

I always blew that experience off as the product of hometown media and blue-shaded glasses. Until the 2018-19 season, and our friends at Inside Hook applying the “lucky” adjective to the entire NHL.

Actually the “hockey is just luck” trend in analytics began in 2012, when author Michael Mauboussin published a book with a title even longer than his name that there’s no need to repeat here. Vox and Five Thirty-Eight got in on the fun in 2017 with stories that suggest an NHL full of winning teams that arrived by accident.

When favorites like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, and Washington Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs early in 2019, the analysts – who almost always overreacts to the weekly regular-season standings – needed an alibi.

Someone named Evan Bleier is blathering at Inside Hook that hockey is so much hooky – he even posts a chart from The Book We Shall Not Name which ranks NHL hockey below casino gambling on a scale of luck’s ratio to skill.

In other words, you’ve got a better chance of scoring a jackpot on a slot machine as you have of making any significant gains betting on pond shinny at the sportsbook.

Yes – there is uncertainty in ice hockey gambling. That doesn’t mean that the sport itself is fluky.

Why Inside Hook is Outside of Hockey Logic

Those fair-weather fans who find themselves drawn to a hot start only to be disappointed later are dealing with low sample-sizes. It happens in baseball, basketball, and soccer.

Great regular seasons followed by miserable title bids are germane to all sports. But Bleier lists NBA basketball as a “skill-based” sport in which luck is least likely to come into play, reasoning that a basketball team’s “best players” are on the court more often and have more control over a game than Wayne Gretzky playing on 1 out of 3 lines.

He has obviously never seen footage of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, for which The Great One could, as remarked in interviews, have a bad day and finish with 4 points.

Bleier’s premise is all wrong. Just because basketball is a game in which the top-ranked players can dominate more often doesn’t mean that the outcomes are lucky. Ice hockey is its own thing. The squads are larger, and yet a truly great champion (the kind that wind up with “great” somewhere in their nickname) can still make the crucial difference in a Stanley Cup or World Championship run.

Vince Lombardi once lamented that football would be the “ultimate team sport” if it wasn’t for the quarterback being too important. I doubt that The Pope was wishing for a scenario in which only “luck” could hold sway, since without a QB it would be even harder for superior players to take over. However, that would also make American football’s team components even more of a factor.

Just because individual players are more-often the narrative in the NBA doesn’t mean that basketball’s model of competition must be shared in other fields. Sure, a lucky shot can only count for 3 points in the NBA – but it can mean the difference between winning and losing. A crazy bounce can lead to a playoff goal in the NHL, but a really good club may not have been in position to suffer from it.

The Myth of Shots and Scoring Chances

Analysts argue that shots on-goal often favor the NHL club that loses, reasoning that a discrepancy between outcomes and “quality” scoring chances equals a sport in which luck prevails.

That’s a horrible misunderstanding of pond shinny. There are no awards given out for controlling the puck more often or taking more “quality” shots, unless you win. When a team wins after taking less shots it must be considered whether it was in their game plan to not have a ton of shots.

When all goes to plan and they win, it’s anything but luck.

Bettors should pay attention to goaltenders who struggle when their teams control the play and don’t allow many shots. There have been legendary NHL goalies who prefer not to have “cold legs” and would rather spend the 1st period stopping easy perimeter shots. Dominik Hasek was that way, though his overall skill and clutch ability still ranks him as one of the greatest GKs ever to play.

Russian hockey has always preached scoring goals – not getting shots or getting chances. The Red Machine is a counter-attacking international team, leading to hilarious situations against Team Canada such as at the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2015.

My recollection of the NHL Network play-by-play call from the gold medal game that year: “Crosby shot…O’Reilly shot…forecheck…forecheck…forecheck…Crosby shot….Canada turns it over…Ovechkin. Kovalchuk. Ovechkin! Kovalchuk! OVECHKIN OHH!”

Yes, the Russians got tired and were trounced in the end. But my point is that it wasn’t the number of Canada shots that led to some “analytical” victory. Victory is won by athletes on the ice.

Gamblers who picked Canada that day didn’t win because they were “lucky” when the soft goals started going in. They were “lucky” on the day that Canada’s managers and scouts got together and selected a team and found a goalie who could out-play the Russian goalie.

Scoring chances are not a wonderful metric for elite hockey teams because those squads plan for things to go wrong on the ice. A scoring chance usually means that 1 thing went wrong for the defending club, like a defenseman pinching-in, missing the puck, and allowing a 2-on-1 break the other way. An actual goal resulting from the 2-on-1 is going to come if A) an attacker makes an incredible play that nobody could defend or B) the remaining defenseman makes a mistake an allows an easy-money pass.

And like Grant Fuhr once did for the Edmonton Oilers, a netminder can simply close the door.

None of those outcomes have anything to do with luck. The 2-on-1 scenario might not involve either team’s “best” players – whatever that means – but the strength of a frozen chain is its weakest link. Is hockey all about luck because 22 instead of 10 players are tested?

Gambling on Hockey is Not the Sport of Hockey

The Lightning lost because they were overconfident (remember the President’s Cup curse?) and played badly, and the Capitals lost because Washington’s high-octane brand of shoot-‘em-up hockey only works when everything is absolutely clicking on all cylinders.

The Western Conference final between the Blues and Sharks (the 2019 one) will be determined by whether San Jose’s consistent outstanding play can overwhelm a club that has looked like a million dollars since that “low sample size” start in which St. Louis was awful.

But gambling on the series may not feel so cut-and-dry. Especially if you wager on the 1 and ½ goal spreads.

Teams have too many problems trying to win by 1 goal to worry about winning by a hundred.

More importantly, National Hockey League clubs see a loss as a loss whether it’s by 1 goal or 2 or 5. NHL betting sites know this, and set lines at (1 ½) to confound even the most-grizzled handicappers. Coaches pull their goaltenders and teams go wild trying to score both ways in the closing moments of 1-goal games, causing spread bettors to renew their Hair Club sponsorships.

Bettors should look to make their NHL wagers on lines that mirror the agenda of the coach of the team. We (typically) know they’re trying to win, so the moneyline is a less-hectic option for any faceoff.

The Over/Under can fall prey to the same empty-net conundrum at the finish. But remember that everyone from Vegas to Venice is factoring-in the likelihood of empty-net goals, and if you compensate in like terms mentally then a low-scoring prediction still beats a high O/U total.

Is the Single-Elimination Format a Crapshoot?

Futures gamblers love to pick favorites in leagues that have a large sample-size of games. Ice hockey bettors are often scared to death of Olympic-style competition since a talented lineup can get knocked out in a single game, as the Canadians were beaten by the Swiss in the IIHF World Championship semifinals last May.

Don’t ask me about the Olympic format. I’m not a big fan, especially since they keep changing it. Gary Bettman has been allowed to screw excellent national teams out of using their NHL players, sometimes only a few countries at a time, which creates a dreadfully unfair landscape. The International Olympic Committee didn’t even host a proper gold medal game when Team USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid. The Miracle on Ice was just another faceoff in a weird “medal round-robin.”

But the IIHF Worlds are another story. Yes, a team must win 3 in a row to prevail with a gold medal after slogging through group play. That means the most consistent squads can usually advance on a fairly easy quarterfinal, though.

And as for the final elimination games, it can’t be argued that a team doesn’t have to be great to survive them. Crosby doesn’t play every year, and the Canadians don’t always make it.

Futures and Moneylines, Rah! Rah!

Gold-medal futures in the Worlds and on nations in the World Juniors (a state-side tournament broadcast over the holidays) are a great way to get around the “wild west” of ATS betting on the pond. Stanley Cup futures are a good idea too.

Meanwhile, at least moneylines represent what NHL teams all want – to win games.

But watch those preseason win-total markets on marginal National Hockey League franchises. Clubs which are out of the postseason running late in the year won’t necessarily tell their skaters to tank – but they won’t subject a single one of their top goalie prospects to injury, leading to scenes like this one:

No sir, the NHL never comes down to pure luck. But we all agree that the league is a little kooky.