In none of the other four major American sports will you experience as many ups and downs as in the strange and quirky world of NHL. While this may make it one of the more exciting and heart-pounding sports to follow, the unpredictability and constant rule-changes do perhaps explain why it’s never gained the same popularity as the rather more straightforward and static NFL or MLB.
The NHL started life in Canada in 1917, beginning with just four teams. The league has expanded significantly since then, but the ride has been far from smooth, with plenty of struggles, changes and labor battles along the way – there have been four labor disputes since 1992 alone, with one of those resulting in the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season. The NHL’s centenary is due in just three years, and no sport would benefit more from some good press than this one – particularly with the likes of soccer snapping at its heels, and trying to displace it as America’s fourth sport.
Current NHL Season and Playoff Format
The modern NHL (which realigned itself for the 2013-2014 season) consists of 30 teams. These are split across two conferences (East and West), with each conference itself chopped into two further divisions – the Western Conference comprises the Pacific and Central Divisions, and the East Conference is made up of the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions. The East Conference has slightly more teams – 16 to the West’s 14.
The regular season consists of 82 games, split evenly between home and away contests. The season begins in the fall, usually in October, and runs to mid-April. Eight teams from each conference make it through to the playoffs. The top three from each division go through, along with two Wild-Card teams. The team with the highest points tally receives home ice advantage in every round. The sides then battle it out over a series of best-of-seven contests until only one side is left from each Conference.
The remaining two teams then engage in one final best-of-seven, with the victor taking home the coveted Stanley Cup. This trophy is much-adored, mostly for the tradition and history that surrounds it. Rarely is there such a connection between the players and the sport’s major trophy as in NHL, and the winning team even gets to spend a day with the cup during the offseason!
Types of NHL Bets
Bettors will find that NHL wagering shares a lot of common traits with baseball – even though one game is played on a sheet of ice, while the other is set against triple-digit heat-waves. As with baseball, there is no point spread assigned to a game. Instead, wagers are made using the money line or the puck line. Totals are also available on each game.
NHL Money Lines
The money line is a fairly simple type of bet where you simply pick a team to win outright. Here’s an example:
Detroit Red Wings –120 at Montreal Canadiens +110
In this game, Detroit are the on-the-road favorites against Montreal. The money line odds are centered on the one hundred dollar amount. A Detroit backer would need to wager $120 in order to win $100. For the Montreal underdogs, a $100 bet would secure you a win of $110, assuming Montreal was victorious.
There can be no tie (or “push”) in the game, as regular season matches will always have a winner – going to overtime and, if needed, employing a shootout to decide the result. The playoffs don’t have a shootout, and the game simply goes through multiple overtimes until a winner emerges. Overtime and shootouts usually count for NHL money line bets, but sportsbooks can offer “regulation only” odds, where a push can occur if the game is tied after the first three periods.
NHL Puck Lines
Another popular bet-type is the puck line. This is essentially the same as the run line in MLB. Here’s an example, using our Detroit and Montreal game again:
Detroit Red Wings -1.5 (+250) at Montreal Canadiens +1.5 (-270)
You’ll notice that Detroit now have a –1.5 attached. This means that Detroit must win by two clear goals (or “pucks”) in order to win. Montreal is assigned a +1.5, so Montreal backers will win if their team either wins, or if they lose by a single puck.
Both teams also have a money line portion attached. Interestingly, although Detroit were previously the favorites, they’ve now become underdogs – the Canadiens backers are now the ones who must put up $270 in order to win $100. NHL games are usually tightly contested, making it difficult for even the favorites to win by two goals or more. Also, because the game goes to overtime, any bet of +1.5 will be chalked up as an automatic win, since only one more goal will be awarded. So the +1.5 team will frequently become favorites under this system, even if they are underdogs on a standard money line bet.
If you believe a team will run over an opponent, and don’t want to risk $200 or more just to win $100, puck lines are a worthwhile bet.
NHL totals are listed for every regular season and post season game. The typical total is either 5 or 5.5, with outliers like 4.5, 6, or 6.5 sometimes listed. The money line portion is present once again. To go back to our Detroit and Montreal game, we see the totals as:
Over 5.5 –130 Under 5.5 +120
If you think the game will see six goals or more, you can risk $130 in order to have the chance of making $100. Alternatively, if you think there’ll be no more than five goals, you can risk $100 in order to win $120. The totals score will include overtime and shootouts.
Any totals on a whole number has the possibility of ending in a tie or push – if you’re betting on 5, for example, and the game ends with five goals, you’ll get your money back.
Totals in the NHL are usually heavily “shaded” towards one side or another, and such bets frequently have a money line of –135 or higher.
The grand salami is a special type of totals bet that takes into account every NHL game of the day. If the grand salami is set at 32, for instance, you would need there to be 33 or more goals across all games in order to win on overs. If there were 32 goals in total, the bet would amount to a push, and the wager would be refunded. The Grand Salami is an interesting way to get action across all games, taking a slice of everything.
NHL Prop Betting
Proposition bets can offer a more sophisticated way of wagering. They can apply either to individual players (overs or unders on shots, goals and assists, for instance), or to teams (total goals, time of first goal etc.). A few books allow players to bet into adjusted puck lines or totals as well. This means you can take –2.5 goals on the favorites, or even –1.5 goals on the underdogs at huge odds – in some rare cases, alternate totals are listed from as low as 3.5, up to 7.5 or higher.
Unfortunately, the proposition betting market in NHL is particularly thin, and there aren’t many props for the majority of regular season games unless you look around at different books. Even then, low limits are all too common.
The futures markets for the NHL include division winners, conference winners, and Stanley Cup champions. Some books update these odds regularly during the season, and others do not.
Futures bets have both pros and cons. The odds are usually pretty attractive, especially considering that in the NHL, more than half of the teams make it to the postseason. This gives your futures bets some staying power, and ensures you are usually in action deep into the regular season or beyond. On the other hand, you must post the funds and wait months for your winning bets to be paid. Granted, banks aren’t paying much interest these days, but you still tie up capital that could have been used on other profitable bets in the meantime.
NHL Betting Strategies – Work Stoppages and Rule Changes
The NHL has had more work stoppages and rule changes over the past 20 years than any other major sport. The overtime format has seen countless tweaks. There were no shootouts at all until the 2005-2006 season, and even today, the league is seriously considering eliminating the shootout, or modifying overtime to avoid so many of them.
Any time there is a major rule change, books attempt to adapt. But the bookmakers are only human, and are essentially speculating on what might happen when a rule is changed or implemented. Books will quickly catch on to most if not all profitable angles, but the constant flux does give opportunities for savvy bettors to get in and out again with some nice profits.
NHL throws up its fair share of questions, even when there aren’t any imminent rule changes. How do teams respond after a heartbreaking shootout loss on the road? Does momentum carry over from one game (or playoff series) to the next when your team is riding a hot goalie? Do teams have a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” to play it conservatively if the game is tied in the final minutes, ensuring that both sides get at least the one point for forcing overtime? These are just a few questions the sportsbooks and punters must answer and reevaluate.
The Olympic Break
In 2014, the NHL took a few weeks off for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The league allowed players to participate and represent their home countries. When the league returned to regular season action, play was compressed because of the layoff. The league still had its regular 82 game schedule, but now it was being packed into a schedule which had been cut by two weeks. This left big opportunities for the smart NHL bettor. First of all, players in the Olympics had to endure travel, practice, press, and multiple rounds of games. Veteran players, like Sidney Crosby, may be used to these demands, but newer Olympians may be unable to handle the grind.
The Olympics were also very emotional for the players, and the highs and lows for some were even more extreme than those experienced across an NHL postseason. Throw in a few injuries, and the Olympics was obviously a big catalyst for mid-season change. Were some players subconsciously looking ahead to the Olympic break beforehand? Did some players go a bit too hard during the Olympics, leaving little in the tank for the long and grueling Stanley Cup chase? How did the layoff affect players not involved in the Olympics? Are they able to simply shut it down and start back up like nothing happened?
These factors and more could all be exploited if you are a sharp NHL handicapper. The league is currently reviewing whether or not to send players to the next winter games in 2018.
The NHL has recently introduced outdoor games as a means of raising brand awareness, and attracting new fans. The debut was the 2008 Winter Classic on January 1. This drew huge attention, and scored solid ratings, even when put up against college football bowl games. The league has since expanded to include more outdoor games. Some have called the move a gimmick, but these games aren’t going away any time soon, and bettors may find spots to make extra plays on these contests. Weather usually isn’t a factor in the NHL, but with an outdoor game, factors like wind and snow come into play. The sportsbooks are essentially flying by the seat of their pants trying to adjust for conditions, since there isn’t much history to go off of. Even small details, such as a goalie using a special mask for an outdoor game, can be an edge. Pay close attention, and you may be able to beat the books at their own game.
Riding A Hot Goalie
Hockey is a unique sport. The goaltender faces every shot directed at the net, and is utterly vital to a team’s success – they fulfil a similar role to the starter pitcher in baseball, a player who is directly involved in every single scoring chance. However, unlike in baseball, a hockey goalie can start and complete five, 10, or even 20+ games in a row! If you can predict a hot streak before others catch on, you’ll enjoy a significant advantage on your wagers. There are countless examples of goalies catching fire and carrying teams deep into the playoffs, sometimes all the way to Lord Stanley’s Cup. Imagine having an ace starting pitcher throwing complete game after complete game for months at a time – that’s what it can be like when a goalie gets on a roll in the NHL. Any statistic that can help you spot a surging goalie before the books or general betting public, will be worth its weight in gold.
NHL betting limits are not very high compared to more mainstream sports like the NFL. This makes total sense. Fewer people watching the sport means fewer people betting on the sport. Most nights, the only way to bet the NHL on typical sportsbooks, is through puck lines, money lines, and totals. On a typical day in the regular season, most sportsbooks may offer you no props at all. However, by using tried and tested techniques from other sports, it’s still possible to bet profitably on the NHL.
Betting the NHL
Number one is line shopping. Always make sure you’re getting attractive odds on your NHL bets. Some books will add extra juice to heavy favorites, knowing unsophisticated bettors will still take the bet. Don’t fall for this trap. The NHL is a competitive league, and anything can happen on any given night. Hunt aggressively for the best odds, and spread your action across multiple books to hit the right prices.
Most sportsbooks post NHL lines the night before the game. This can sometimes be several hours before starting goaltenders are announced. This poses further questions, and the bookies are expected to come up with answers on the fly. Once again, there are opportunities here for smart players.
Choosing a Sportsbook
First and foremost, choose an NHL sportsbook that’s reliable and safe. After that, though, there are other caveats you must take into account. Will overtime and shootouts count towards your bet, for example? A few books offer in-play betting on the NHL, while others only allow in-running bets during commercials or intermissions. If you’re looking for live betting, hunt around for the books that offer the service on a consistent basis.
With almost constant NHL rule changes, make sure your book keeps up. A reputable book is much more likely to stay current, and, if any disputes arise, should set the example for how to handle them.