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How to Anticipate Empty-Net Goals in Ice Hockey Betting

Hockey Player Scoring a Goal
It seems like every genre of point-spread and Over/Under betting comes with its own special set of pitfalls.

In basketball, a “dead under” result or a thin cover by the underdog can be erased with a foul-o-rama in the final seconds…or even OT. In soccer there’s always the chance of a penalty or a handball in the box, giving a striker a 70 or 80% chance to score on the resulting unopposed kick. And while a PK might not be the most vaunted guy in an NFL weight room, his field goal and XP tries carry all kinds of weight in Las Vegas, especially in the 4th quarter.

But it’s perhaps only in ice hockey in which the spread itself is designed with a trap door.

The traditional goal spread on an NHL game is (+/- 1 ½), with bookmakers setting adjusted payoff lines around the static number, as opposed to pairing each spread with regular ATS payoffs such as (-105) or (-115). In other words, bookies begin with the premise that any game of pro shinny must take 1 and ½ goals from the favorite, and the payoff lines adjust to that. If the Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to blow-out the L.A. Kings by at least 2-3 goals, the spread might be PIT (- 1 ½) (-150) as the betting site puts short odds on the chances of Sid the Kid and company prevailing in a rout. When a contest appears to be more evenly-matched, the market might be (-1 ½) (+200) instead.

Sometimes an NHL betting site will even take the (- 1 ½) from the weaker of 2 teams, while handicapping the payoff lines in an even more extreme way. A weak “favorite” might be offered at (+300) ATS, since the gambler is not just predicting a straight-up upset but a win by at least 2.

Why the 1 and ½ goal spreads? If you don’t already know the answer, you must be pulling your goalie.

Empty-Net Goals: Chaos on the (-1 ½) NHL Spread

It’s the time-honored coaching move for a National Hockey League club losing by a single goal with just over 1:00 left. Pull the goalie for an extra attacker!

Of course the trope of removing the goaltender from the game to give a team a 6th attacker on the ice is not relegated to professional hockey alone. The most-legendary 1-goal-lead situation in the history of the game (at least in America) occurred during the Miracle on Ice in 1980, in which a roster of student-athletes representing Team USA somehow led the Soviet Union 4-3 as time ticked down in the 3rd period at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Russian superstars were not distributed between the NHL and the KHL in those days, so the USSR Olympic squad consisted of 20+ of the finest players in the world.

5-on-6 could have been a deadly disadvantage for the out-manned Americans. But Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov did not believe in pulling the goalie, ever, because his team was trained to attack “scientifically” with 5 men at a time.

In the end, weird science lost out to good old Yankee heart. Tikhonov really should have pulled the goaltender.

Or maybe he shouldn’t have. At the World Cup in 1996, Team Canada tried to enhance an already-devastating power play in the late-going by pulling goaltender Curtis Joseph for a 6-on-4 advantage. But a pass went awry, and anyone who had Team USA at (-1 ½) (+250) enjoyed a nice payoff thanks to the empty net.

The “empty-netter” can be the easiest of all goals to score in hockey, but it’s not always automatic. Pulling the goaltender – and leaving one’s own net empty – is a “chaos agent” move by the coach who is losing by 1 or even 2 goals late in the 3rd period. He or she knows that an empty-net goal could end the team’s chances at any moment. But the extra attacker gives the skaters just enough of an “artificial” power play that the chances of a tying goal increase as well.

All in all, it’s worth the gamble because of the time factor. It often works to tie the game.

The word “chaos” keeps popping up in this blog post, and the element of chaos introduced into a pro shinny result by means of empty net + extra attacker is good for bookmakers. NHL gambling sites will always remain fond of the 1 and ½ goal spread because random chance is the house’s friend.

Bettors will win some games and lose some games on the spread thanks to empty-netters. But what does the phenomenon do? In sum total, it makes a (-1 ½) goal spread much harder to predict an outcome on.

Medicine for the Empty-Net Blues (in STL or Elsewhere)

The simplest and easiest way to avoid the pitfalls of 1 and ½ goal spreads is to seek out alternative lines. Most of the bigger online betting sites which are legal in America offer some type of alternative for goal-spread bets, and sportsbooks like MyBookie tend to stay away from the (-1 ½) goal standard to begin with. It’s not quite as ubiquitous as the 5-innings bet or the “run line” in MLB.

Let’s handicap (quickly and crudely) what the specter of a potential empty-net result does to a typical pick on the favorite-to-cover (-1 ½) in the NHL.

When you wager on the Pittsburgh Penguins to cover (-1 ½) against the L.A. Kings (or another currently weak team), the potential outcomes and % likelihoods are as follows:

  • Pittsburgh wins by a lopsided score (i.e. by 3+ goals) (25%)
  • Pittsburgh wins a close game and L.A. goaltender is never pulled (15%)
  • The Pens win a close game despite L.A. pulling the goaltender with 1:00 left (25%)
  • The Kings win in an upset (15%)
  • The game goes to OT (20%)

Looking at the numbers above, we can see that the scenario of L.A. pulling the goalie is one of the likeliest developments that could take place late in the game.

It’s not as if you get to wager on a “blind” Las Vegas handicap that does not take into account the % chance of Pittsburgh playing against an empty net for 60 seconds or so. Oddsmakers take that factor into account and may sometimes even over-value it. So even though a Pens-to-cover bettor has a potential “escape hatch” in the scenario described above (if Pittsburgh doesn’t dominate the Kings, the Penguins can still win by 2+ goals thanks to a desperate empty-net ploy by the opponent), the outcome has been accounted for in betting markets and is only of value to the gambler in a compensatory sense.

Here’s a few tips for avoiding the empty-net goal spread blues (even when you’re watching the St. Louis Blues) which do not begin with “log out and sign up at another gambling site.”

Know the Numbers…and Analytics

Handicappers must not only factor how often a squad can score in an empty net with the goaltender pulled (about 35% of the time according to recent studies) but realize that there’s another net in play as well even though it still has a goaltender in it. If the trailing team scores to tie the game with :15 seconds left, the favorite can no longer cover ATS no matter what.

Bettors who took the (-1 ½) favorite are hoping for an empty-net goal but fearing the tying tally from a 6-on-5 enemy advantage. Gamblers who take the underdog fear having their nets empty but know that their squad can put the market to bed with a dramatic goal – which happens about 30% of the time when the goaltender is pulled.

The analytics surrounding empty-net scenarios can be deceptive. For instance, you might think that a better NHL team is likely to score more empty-net goals. They often are – but for the same reason a great passing offense in the NFL is likely to have a RB with a bunch of yards. When you’re always leading games, good things happen. Opponents must try to pull their goalies a lot more often against good NHL clubs who are always winning.

But it’s hard to score empty-net goals if you never give the opposing GK a chance to leave the net. Dominating forward lines make it difficult for the other squad to pull the goalie in the first place, by tying-up attackers in their own end along the boards, and pressuring the goal just enough that the netminder is too anxious to take off for the bench.

Pulling the goaltender is not a button that a coach can press but rather a play that must be executed. The team must win possession of the puck, advance over the opposing blue line (or at least dump the puck in successfully) and prevent a quick clearing effort. At that point, the GK can bolt for the boards.

So while a weaker team might indeed be more likely to give up an empty-net goal once its goaltender is not on the ice, the same club might have a devil of a time pulling the goalie against anyone other than the 2018-19 New Jersey Devils. The better an opponent is relative to you, the harder time you might have even finding a scenario in which the GK can leave.

NHL Goal Spread Betting: Think Like the Coaches Do

Remember that coaches are just as aware of the empty-net/extra attacker conundrum as everyone else, and employ various tactics to avoid the last-minute scenario altogether.

Some coaches will pull their goaltender when trailing and on the power play with 3 or 4 minutes left to go in the game. Others sense that the real “power play” advantage comes not from having a million skaters on the ice but from the space left by a missing defender, and that there’s no reason to try for a risky 6-on-4 power play when a well-executed 5-on-4 could wind up in a 5-on-3 or a 4-on-3 if more penalties are taken.

Coaches differ on what to tell their defenders to do when the opposing goaltender is pulled. When do you take pot-shots at the empty net? A successful long shot ends the game with victory…but a miss from behind the center red line gives the opponent a breather and an attack-zone faceoff.

Sometimes, players will appear to send a benign clearing pass out of the zone that “just happens” to have enough mustard to reach the empty net. When it misses, resulting in a costly “icing” call by the line official, the skater is often guilty of hurting his team while trying to pad his scoring stats.

I advise looking closely at the blue lines of opponents to determine whether a favorite is more likely to win by 2 on an empty-netter. If the defensemen on an NHL club are good at skating, shooting, and moving the puck, the team with a 6-on-5 advantage is more likely to make plays, advance toward the leading squad’s net, and potentially score a tying goal. If the D is a rock-solid, stay-at-home type of blue line, good for them, but it doesn’t come in very handy when playing 6-on-5.

Leading teams will try to put pressure on an empty-net/6-skater side in the neutral zone, hoping for a turnover. Once the winning side gains possession on the plus-side of center, they can fire-at-will on the empty net. A clumsy defense corps leads to a lot of 2-goal losses in the closing moments – the New York Rangers’ high-priced blue line has disappointed with only a handful of goals in 2018-19, and the Rangers have wound-up allowing a costly 17 empty-net goals on the season so far.

Betting ATS on the NHL: Pick Your Poison and Bet Confidently

So you’ve found an underdog with a strong puck-moving defense corps and a cautious head coach. You wager on them to cover (+1 ½) goals, and what happens? They give up an empty-net goal when a puck ricochets (Rick Tocchet?) off a referee in the neutral zone and hops onto the stick of an enemy sniper.

Too bad. But the %s of last-minute tying goals and empty-net tallies to cover (-1 ½) do tend to even out, and the syndrome is not prohibitive to successful ATS gambling on NHL hockey.

Like March Madness bettors who love playing the O/U, knowing that a foul-o-rama with 1:00 remaining could drive the final point total upward while a leading team killing the clock could send it plummeting, NHL spread aficionados will continue to brave the trap-doors in the ice.

Just don’t make bets as heavy as Zamboni machines, or you might crash through.