Put things on ice and it gets much more slippery. Betting on the NHL Playoffs is a very different animal than many other major sports.
Even in the early rounds, where the favorites are usually able to—pardon the pun—skate through in games played on grass and hardwood, the top seeds are nowhere near as safe when it comes to hockey.
An entire season’s worth of success can disappear in a couple of close finishes and even the best teams can be sent packing.
Here’s how to do what many top seeds cannot and survive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Rough Going for the Favorites
In the first round of the NBA Playoffs, favorites are generally able to cruise past their opponents, usually in four or five games. The NHL is another story altogether. The playoffs are a dogfight, even in round one, and mismatches are an endangered species.
This season has already seen that trend continue. Central Division top seed Colorado was able to sweep wild card Nashville, 4-0, but the other three number ones are in a tussle.
Atlantic division winner Florida, Metropolitan champ Carolina and Pacific winner Calgary are all tied 2-2 in their respective series, all against Wild Card teams. The two seeds in each division aren’t any better, going a combined 7-9 so far in their series.
That’s nothing new. Last season, only two of the four top seeds survived their first-round series, going 13-10 in first-round games. In 2019, all four top seeds lost.
Things aren’t better for the runners-up. The two seeds went 7-15 last year, with only one of them making it into round two.
As the playoffs go on, things don’t get easier for the top seeds. Despite having four top seeds in the 16-team field, 2018 was the last time a number one seed advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
NHL Stanley Cups Playoffs Trends
So, with things so fraught for the favored teams, what’s the best way to bet the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the early rounds?
The home teams seem like a relatively safe bet so far in this season’s playoffs. Home teams have gone 19-13 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, for a .594 winning percentage. The Hurricanes-Bruins series is the poster child for this trend.
The top-seeded Canes won their two home games in Raleigh to open the series, outscoring Boston by a combined 10-3 margin. Then the series went north and things went south for Carolina. The Bruins won their two home games by a 9-4 combined margin to even the series.
Last year, however, home times were only slightly better than a coin flip, going 23-22 in first-round games for a .511 percentage. This year’s home teams have already nearly won as many games in the first round as last season, despite playing more than a dozen fewer games.
As the Hurricanes and Bruins have shown, momentum is not something to trust in the NHL postseason. An impressive win, even a blowout, does not herald future success. The team that won its most recent first-round game has gone just 9-15 in the next game for a .375 record.
That means that picking the most recent loser will win 62.5 percent of the time, a better winning percentage than taking the team with the better regular-season record or the home team.
That’s another trend that doesn’t have much history behind it, however. Winners of first-round games went on to win their next game at a .622 rate in last year’s first-round, going 23-14.
Just like in the NBA, your best option might be to pick the team that’s trailing in a first-round series. The team that is leading the first-round series has gone just 5-13 this season, for a .278 winning percentage. So picking the team trailing would have paid off at a 72 percent rate so far.
Will that hold up? Well, it didn’t happen last season. Teams leading the series went 16-13 for a .552 percentage.
What to Do?
As we said at the outset, betting on ice is a slippery situation. Taking the home team and betting on anything that extends the series seems to be the best betting strategy. But as a long string of unsuccessful top seeds shows, nothing is assured in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.