Of all the major sports, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are closest to the NCAA Tournament in term of unpredictability. As a general rule, the best team almost always wins in the NBA, the NFL, college football, and college basketball. But like the college basketball tournament, how teams reach The Finals, there are a lot of wild outcomes that are often stunning along the way.
Hockey by its very nature lends itself to close outcomes and finishes because scoring comes one goal at a time. The other element is more similar to baseball when you have a surprise team making the World Series. In the NHL, a hot goaltender and two snipers can carry a team to the conference finals (much like two batters, one starting pitcher and bullpen in MLB) by how they play.
See: NHL Hockey Late Season Betting Tips
Here are few strategies to employ that are particularly effective in the first two rounds, with diminishing returns in the conference championships.
Games 1 and 2 of a Series
The home team will be the favorite and the basic principle is the bet the road underdog in one and possibly two games. There is a good chance that the visitor will win one game. If you bet both contests and split, you made a profit backing the underdog. Often, the best way to do this is to place a standard wager on Game 1 and if it loses, increase your Game 2 wager by 25 to 40 percent (ex. $100 for starters, followed by $125 to $140). With the Game 2 underdogs winning close to 60 percent of the time in the last 11 years down 1-0 in the series, by upping your bet modestly, if correct, your payout is healthy.
A few other methods to consider. If you are a more conservative bettor, pass on Game 1 and watch closely to see if the underdog falls in the opener. If so, you have stacked the odds in your favor.
If you are a more aggressive bettor and you played the underdog in Game 1 and they won, the oddsmakers will make the favorite a larger number in the next game and most recently the dog has won 56 percent of the time in Game 2.
Game 3 of a Series
Here we have two situations, one team is up 2-0 or the series is tied 1-1. Whatever team is down 0-2, clearly they are desperate for a victory and will give a complete effort to avoid falling to 0-3. A bit surprisingly, the 2-0 or 0-2 choice wins only 46 percent of the time. OK, but not noteworthy. The better scenario is when the series is tied (1st two rounds only), take the higher seed, who wins more than 59 percent of the time.
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Game 5 of a Series
We are skipping Game 4 because while you could make some money over time betting lower seeds down 0-3 and higher seeds down 0-3, the outcomes are within a game or two of .500, since 2008, making them less reliable in a given year, at least to this point.
Game 5 is one of the best wagers for the playoffs on every level.
When a series is 2-2, the higher seed has the home-ice advantage and returns home to win 60 percent of the time. For whatever reason, when the home team has a 3-1 lead and a chance to wrap up the series, they have only emerged victorious on 44 percent of these attempts, making what is normally a bloated underdog a very good play.
Conversely, if a lower seed has a 3-1 on the road, though they would be a smaller underdog, they win this contest almost 70 percent of the time.
Game 6 of a Series
The most profitable path here is to back the lower seed trailing 3-2 in the series and is back home. In this case, the lower seed is victorious at 56 percent and is usually priced as small underdog or favorite, which reduces risk or is a profit enhancer.
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If you follow this game by game rules for the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs and to a less degree for the conference championships (matchups have to be studied closer here), year in and year out you will profit from betting hockey.