Strategies for NHL betting. A hockey bettor’s take

Hone your methodology for beating the books on the ice.

I have been an NHL Hockey bettor and handicapper for the last decade, and I have used a variety of wide-ranging betting strategies that have been consistent money makers and profit producers during that time. I will be highlighting several of these betting strategies here in this article as we approach the return of NHL Hockey.

Look for value on road teams

Home ice is routinely overvalued in NHL betting. That’s not saying home teams are never a good bet. However, in many instances, the best teams in the NHL are priced like it when playing on home ice, and can be seen regularly laying -170 or more on the moneyline. One of my key strategies in the NHL is isolating teams that play well on the road and looking for good spots on the schedule to back those teams. 

During the current NHL season that was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 out of 31 teams had a record of .500 or better on the road. It isn’t by accident that we see many teams win clinching playoff series games away from their home rink, like the St. Louis Blues did in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, defeating the Bruins in Boston. Playing at home doesn’t necessarily provide the same advantage in hockey as it tends to do in other sports. There are times when I have a particular game lined differently than the oddsmakers, by 10 to 20 cents, shading the moneyline price toward a road team if they have a strong record away from home. 

Oddsmakers tend to set their lines strictly based on power ratings and overall record. They don’t usually adjust individual moneyline prices toward teams that have a good track record of success on the road. I look to exploit those market inefficiencies. I will usually have more wagers on road teams than home teams on the moneyline, due to the higher win probability on quality road teams that usually provide exceptional moneyline price value. 

To put this strategy into proper context, 18 teams turned a profit and were + units on the road, while only 9 teams were profitable at home in the current paused NHL season. During the 2018-2019 season, 13 teams were profitable in their road games and once again only 9 teams showed a profit on home ice. Past results from recent seasons clearly indicate that the value lies with road teams in NHL betting.

Current form > overall record

In this bettor’s opinion, one of the greater edges in the NHL involves focusing on a team’s current form rather than looking at their overall record. As bettors and handicappers, we go through winning streaks and losing streaks. NHL teams are not much different in that regard. There are peaks and valleys that all teams go through during a lengthy 82 game regular season. Isolate those instances and determine when teams find themselves in either a hot streak or cold streak. 

Sometimes you have to be willing to bet on some of the worst teams in the league if they happen to be playing great hockey at the moment, leaving them undervalued in the betting markets. In contrast, you should be prepared to fade the better teams in the league if they happen to be struggling at the current point in time, which often makes them overvalued from a moneyline price perspective.

A good example is the Philadelphia Flyers, who spent the majority of the season prior to the hiatus as an inconsistent team struggling to make the playoffs. At the time, they were priced like an average to slightly below average hockey team. From January 8th to March 10th, the Flyers caught fire and went on a torrid streak, going 19-7 in 26 games during the two month span just before the season was halted. Philadelphia was a great bargain bet on the moneyline during this streak, because they were still being priced like an average hockey team when they were clearly improving and outperforming their overall season record. If you can find these ‘morphing teams’ quickly – those that are playing better or worse than their overall numbers indicate – there is money to be made.

Don’t be afraid to go streaking

No, not that kind of streaking. I am referring to repeatedly betting on teams that are on extended winning streaks and repeatedly betting against teams that are on extended losing streaks. It’s been a tried and true betting staple of mine for years in NHL Hockey. This is an extension of the last point I made about placing a greater emphasis on current form than a team’s overall record. 

Any team in the league has the potential to go on an extended winning streak or losing streak. In every season, you shouldn’t be surprised to see various teams string together 6 to 10 wins in a row, sometimes even more than that. Conversely, teams can lose that many consecutive games as well. I like to ride the streaks rather than find reasons to go against the streaks. In most instances, the streaks happen for a reason.

Win streaks tend to coincide with teams that get key injured players back in the lineup. Many coaches tinker with their lineups on a regular basis. Being able to identify in-season lineup adjustments that lead to improved play is critical to determining which win streaks could be a sign of a team’s improvement representing a sustainable pattern in the long run. It’s imperative to remember that the best teams in the NHL will lose at least 25 to 30 games each season, while the worst teams will win at least 25 to 30 games. I say this to illustrate how the best teams go through skids at some point during the long season and the worst teams go through an uptick in performance at various points. Sometimes there is legitimate moneyline value to support the bad teams when they are playing better and fade the good teams when they are struggling for a period of time. It’s all about finding the right time to strike. 

Schedule analysis

This is a universal betting strategy across all sports. Analyzing each team’s schedule and circling tough travel spots – or stretches of challenging opponents in general – is something I recommend doing in not only the NHL, but any sport. Teams will have an extended 6+ game road trip multiple times each season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have successful road trips. The best strategy is to find scheduling stretches that see a team playing 3 games in 4 days or 4 games in 6 days, especially when the team will be traveling in between each game. Those scheduling spans with a combination of plenty of games and extensive travel can lead to physical and mental deterioration, and a decline in team performance. As a result, these can be identified as solid ‘bet against’ spots. On the flip side, teams that have too much rest and too many days off prior to a game can also be prone to a subpar performance on the ice. 

I also recommend researching how teams perform on the second night of back-to-back games, or with extended rest of 3+ days or more between games. Each season, you’ll find outlier teams that have much better records than others when playing on consecutive nights, and that is usually thanks to better depth and a superior goaltending tandem (involving a better than average backup goalie) helping lead to greater success in short turnaround situations. You’ll also see teams that have better records than some other teams when playing in extended rest spots, which is considered as games that take place 3 or more days after the previous game. Quality coaching, adjustments, strong and constructive use of extra practice time to gain team cohesion, chemistry, and an ability to heal injuries during the time off, are some of the factors that can enhance a particular team’s performance in games following extended rest.

To fade the public or not to fade the public?

I will keep this brief. I don’t believe that blindly fading the public is a betting strategy that works anymore in the 2020 era of sports betting, and that includes hockey. The public is far more knowledgeable and savvy now than they were 20 or more years ago, thanks to the neverending sports news cycle and the rise of social media. The other reason not to blindly fade the public is because the public wins, and they win a lot more than they used to – particularly in the NFL.

There was a time many decades ago when you could view a live odds screen and notice that over 70% of the public action was on a certain side. Back then, you could bet against that side and win more often than not. Those days are long gone. I am interested in fading the money in certain games where I believe a team has been bet in the wrong direction for various reasons, but that is more likely to be sharp action or a combo of sharp and public bettors moving the line. The idea of blindly betting against the public worked a long time ago, but it’s not a prudent or successful betting strategy in 2020.

Tackling totals

Betting totals is a major part of my overall NHL wagering portfolio. I would say that I bet more totals than sides when it comes to the NHL, and I’ve found a variety of winning strategies to consider when betting games to either go over or stay under the total. I talked about riding streaks earlier in this article and that applies to totals as well. Teams can go on consecutive game streaks either over or under the total and a lot of my approach is based on finding change. 

This means taking notice of a distinguishable difference in a team’s pace of play or an altered lineup leading to a distinct shift in style of play. A recurring situation that often leads to higher scoring games is teams battling cluster injuries on defense along the blue line and/or key injuries to top defensive minded and penalty killing forwards, which makes overs a positive expectation wager in my opinion. 

Multiple injuries in one or both of those areas significantly hinder a team’s ability to defend at a high level and keep the puck out of their own net. If two or more regular defensemen are out of the lineup, the remaining blue liners are paired with defensemen they aren’t used to playing with. That leads to an increased amount of breakdowns in coverage and communication resulting in a higher volume of turnovers and giveaways of the puck in the defensive zone, providing the opponent with more quality scoring chances and ultimately goals.

There are countless examples of teams that see their goals-against numbers balloon significantly when they are down multiple starting defensemen. Prior to the pause in this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets lost their best all around defensemen Seth Jones to injury. He plays in all critical even strength situations, on the power play and penalty kill lines, and logs extensive ice time in each game. The Jackets employed a very stingy defensive style of play most of the season, and did it well even with two very inexperienced NHL goalies in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins between the pipes. However, when Jones got injured, the Columbus defensive foundation immediately started showing cracks. Columbus went on an 8-2 run to the over in their first 10 games after his injury. 

The Ottawa Senators had multiple defensemen out of the lineup at one point during the season – including Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and Dylan DeMelo (who was later traded to the Winnipeg Jets) – and they proceeded to go 10-1 over the total in their next 11 games. These are just two examples of the cluster injury angle that prompts a significant change in a team’s performance, and how you can apply it to betting NHL totals.

On the flip side, if teams get key defensemen or defensive minded forwards back from injury – or get improved play from their starting goaltender – those teams can become good under the total candidates in the short term on a game-by-game basis. The fundamental thought process with teams that score a lot of goals and allow a lot of goals cashing over tickets in their games more often, and teams that struggle to score but are a plus defensive team cashing under tickets more often, is relevant. However, the season-long characteristics of a squad tend to be reflected in their moneyline prices and game totals. High scoring teams may have their game totals lined in the 6 to 6.5 range, while lower scoring teams may have 5.5 as their base game totals. This is why recognizing a sudden change in a team’s structure and style of play in the ways I’ve outlined above, is often the best way to find immediate value betting totals.

Feb 22, 2020; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (11) controls the puck against the Ottawa Senators in the third period at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams matter

It’s imperative to be aware of how well teams perform on special teams when betting totals. It’s the one element of the game that can make a huge difference in the final outcome. Power play and penalty kill performance can often make the difference in whether a game goes over the total or stays under the total. Teams with good power plays and/or porous penalty killing increase the chances of a game going over the total. Teams with struggling power plays and/or strong penalty killing increase the likelihood of a game staying under the total. 

Puck lines can turn into massive puck profits

Hockey has a type of bet called the puck line, which is similar to the run line in baseball. You can opt to lay -1.5 goals with the favorite or take +1.5 goals with the underdog. I usually will bet favorites on the puck line and lay -1.5 goals at an even money or plus price underdog return when that favored team is priced higher than -150 on the moneyline. It’s a great way to preserve your bankroll and manage it properly in the long-term, as I believe locking in too many larger favorites on the moneyline is detrimental to the growth of your bankroll.

But don’t forget, it’s important to pick your spots carefully when betting puck lines. My favorite situation in which to lay the goal and a half with a bigger favorite usually comes later in the season, when a superior team – motivated to win in order to secure a playoff spot or division title – faces a struggling bottom feeder that is not only playing poorly on the ice, but battling confidence issues, injuries and a lack of team camaraderie off the ice (these are the characteristics you tend to see in teams that have had their season fall apart). Teams that fall into the latter category tend to lose decisively by wide margins, making the puck line option to bet against those teams an even more appealing value-laden wager.

Incorporating analytics

For the longest time, the stats I used in my daily NHL handicapping were the common statistics that most NHL fans know: Goals scored per game, goals allowed per game, shots on goal, power play and penalty kill efficiency, as well as goals against average and save percentage for goaltenders. I still use those and so should you, but I’ve also started to incorporate some advanced metric statistics in my own analysis.

Hockey analytics haven’t evolved to the same level as in baseball or other sports, but there are still some very worthwhile analytical pieces of data worth monitoring with all teams during the course of the season. Corsi is a popular metric that measures shot attempt differential while at even strength. This provides an indication of whether a team is carrying the play and to what degree they are. I also take a look at Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) for goaltenders, which tracks the number of goals a particular goalie saved based on his save percentage and the total shots against him, given the average of both of these categories across the league. It’s a more accurate indicator of how pivotal the goalie’s role is in that team’s success. The higher the GSAA, the better the goalie plays and the more his team is reliant on him playing well to win games. The lower the GSAA, the worse the goalie plays, meaning any team success more likely comes in spite of that goalie’s performance.

High danger scoring chances for and against is another stat I monitor closely. Shots on goal paints a bare picture of a team’s offensive and defensive capabilities. It isn’t enough to say that a team outshot the opponent 37-25, so they must have been the better team. Where on the ice did those shots and scoring chances happen? The high danger scoring chances metric helps answer that question. A team that generates a lot of high danger scoring chances is often an elite offensive team, although it doesn’t always work that way thanks to luck factors such as the bounce of the puck and opposition goaltending. A team that gives up a lot of high danger scoring chances is usually a weak defensive team, although some teams’ defensive holes get covered up by their opponents’ unlucky finishing ability around the net, along with stellar goaltending from their own goalies. I would recommend being aware of some of these advanced metric stats in hockey, but remember it’s only one small piece of a bigger handicapping puzzle.

These are some strategies that have worked for me in the past betting hockey. Do not shy away from experimenting with your own processes and methodology for beating the books on the ice.