26 Sep

How to Bet on an NHL Playoff Series

Betting on the NHL playoffs is the most popular form of NHL betting, and its an exciting way to add some extra entertainment to your playoff viewing experience. It’s also extremely popular amongst expert sports bettors, or “sharps.”

Many season sports handicappers firmly believe that the NHL is the most accessible sport to make money on, as tracking individual players and teams closely, can give you a tremendous edge over the competition, especially in the playoffs. Further, its common belief that the NHL offers the best lines, as sportsbook’s oddsmakers often spend the majority of their time creating lines for the more popular North American Leagues, like the NBA, NFL, and MLB.

In this guide, we take you through the major strategies and illustrate some of the major influencing factors that you should be monitoring before placing your first bets on the NHL playoffs.

The Zig Zag Theory

Any discussion of playoff betting strategy has to involve the “Zig-Zag Theory.” In essence, the “Zig-Zag Theory” is one that advocates betting on the team that just lost a game, as they are more likely than not to rebound and win the following game, at odds lopsided in favor of the bettor. The theory stipulates that past results easily influence most “squares,” and they quickly lose sight of the bigger picture and wider context of the playoffs.

Momentum is quite fluid, according to this theory, and it is directly related to the strength of a team’s performance of the previous game. The fear of elimination motivates teams, and the focus and desperation bore out of this fear often produce performances much stronger than in the previous game.

This theory is especially critical in regards to betting on the NHL Playoffs, and their 2-2-1-1 structure. In the NHL, home ice does not equip a team with that significant of an advantage, especially in comparison to a league like the NBA. Should the home team win Game 1, the lower seeded underdog team will win Game 2 over 33% of the time.

Compound this with the fact that should the favorited home team win Game 1, the majority of bets will go towards to the favorite sweeping the first two games at home.  This gives those betting on the underdog great odds most of the time, especially on an outcome that occurs roughly one out of every three times.

All of this being said, we don’t recommend putting too stock in the Zig-Zag theory on its own; it’s not a catchall for how to be a successful bettor in the springtime. It must be put in proper context, with a whole host of other factors; when it comes to sports betting, there’s never an easy, obvious answer. Success in sports betting always take some degree of hard work and knowledge.

Zig-Zag Theory and Its Caveats

To be successful betting on the NHL playoffs, there’s no question that your best bet for success is to watch the games yourself and draw your own inferences and conclusions about teams and players from the games. Keeping yourself acquainted with a coaches’ strategy and the injury list will also benefit you immeasurably.

Every game and series is of a different character; tangible and intangible factors will inevitably figure into every outcome, as will luck. When you’re watching the game, or following a series in the hockey media, here are some factors you should be watching for, and placing them in context with the “Zig-Zag Theory.”

The Strength of the Matchup

When assessing how two teams line up with each other at the beginning of a playoff round, the Zig Zag theory should only be applied to teams that are relatively equitable in the quality of their teams. If for example, the higher seeded the Pittsburg Penguins are playing the Columbus Blue Jackets (as they did in the 2017 playoffs) who stumbled into the playoffs in a funk, and they dominated Game 1, they are more than likely to win Game 2. Pittsburg ended up taking both games at home against Columbus.

Contrast this with the highly lauded Washington Capitals matching up against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. Washington was universally expected to steamroll the young and inexperienced squad, and instead squeaked out an overtime win in the first game, looking eminently beatable while doing so. Toronto went on to win the next game on Washington’s home ice, despite eventually succumbing to Washington in 6 games. The strong play of the Leafs and fallibility of the Capitals demonstrated in Game 1 lent credence to the “Zig Zag Theory” here, despite pundits pre-series predictions.

Always remember to focus on the quality of the matchup itself, and how teams are actually playing, before you considering applying handicap methods.

The Caveat to the Matchup: The Sweep

More often than not, the team in the playoffs trying to avoid being swept wins. Since 2005, teams down 0-3 have won Game 4 55.5% of the time (25-20). Teams that lost the first three games of a series and play Game 4 at home have gone 16-12 (57.1%) while road teams in the same positions have gone 10-7 (58.8%) straight-up. More often than not, the team posed to sweep will be favored by your sportsbook. Don’t underestimate what a desperate hockey team can accomplish! Keep this in mind when looking at odds for Game 4; it could give you the edge you need over your sportsbooks.


Sometimes, the coaches simply figure another team out, exploiting weaknesses in a way that the opposing coach cannot find a remedy too. There are countless examples of this; the deployment of the infamous Moen-Pahlsson-Niedermayer line in 2007 by Randy Carlyle, killing the opposition’s dominant top lines, Bob Hartley embarrassing Willie Desjardin’s reliance on his Luca Sbisa-Kevin Bieksa defense pairing in the 2015 playoffs, amongst countless others.

Coaching factors heavily into playoff matchups, as coaches have much more time to adjust their opponent; their analysis often has significantly more depth than in the regular season, along with obvious increased importance. The most obvious sign of this will be forecheckers crushing opposing defensemen to generate fatigue and fear, leading to mistakes, but the influence of coaches is palpable in many other ways. Whether a team plays a slow or fast game, how active their defense is, whether the goalie plays the puck; these little details are of great consequence in a 7 game series, and understanding them gives you a huge edge in predicting the winner of a series. Countless series are fought just as much on the benches as they are on the ice, and this is how many series are won and lost.

An important factor to remain cognizant of is how home ice advantage lets coaches have last change; the home coach is subsequently able to control his matchups much better than he can on the road.

Another aspect of coaching that should not be ignored is their impact on special teams. In a tightly contested series, between two equally matched teams, special teams can make all the difference. If 5 vs. 5 play is constantly even, games will be won and lost on the power play and penalty kill. A coach’s ability to adjust and adapt their powerplays and penalty kills based on what’s working and what’s not is key to winning any tightly contested series.

In cases where one time looks utterly neutered and ineffective thanks to superior coaching, handicapping methods like the “Zig-Zag Theory” should no longer be applied. Instead, focus on which coach is an excellent analyst and strategist in comparison to his peer across the bench.


Goaltending is the most important position in the NHL, and a team’s chances live and die on the backs of their goaltenders. Yes, many people argue that since 2010 when Chicago won with the astoundingly average duo of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi, goaltending is less critical than it has been in years past.

However, we’d argue that goaltenders, even average ones, are much better than they ever have been historically (having bigger pads helps, too.) It’s not that goaltending is any less important, it’s just that goalies have gotten better at stopping the puck in aggregate. But, if you have a goaltender that a team doesn’t trust to make an easy save, this can be absolutely devastating to a team’s chances of successes.

To prove our point, how many teams have won a playoff round with a goalie who can’t stop letting in softies? Next to none! A team requires at least average goaltending to win a playoff round, and excellent goaltending performances can go a long way in changing an underdog’s fortune.

A great example of this is the legendary Pittsburg-Philadelphia series of 2012; this series features a whopping total of 56 goals in 6 games, for an average of 9.3 goals a game. Neither goalie could stop a beach ball, but ultimately Philadelphia triumphed on the strength of Ilya Bryzgalov’s slightly less pungent goaltending. However, the underdog New Jersey Devils with a dearth of talent quickly dispatched Philadephia in the next round; they were able to exploit the glaring deficiency in the Philadelphia net. No doubt a deeper, more talented squad, Philadephia’s loss is an excellent reminder that you need at least average goaltending to win in the NHL.

Another salient example of this is the opening round of the 2010 NHL playoffs. The Washington Capitals, one of the highest scoring and most successful regular season teams of all time, were matched up against the Montreal Canadiens, the 8th seed in the east and the 16th placed team in the entire playoffs; they had squeaked in the last week of the season.

Enter the first round goaltending matchup: Jose Theodore for the Capitals, Jaroslav Halak for the Canadiens. Jose Theodore was not very far removed from a Hart and Vezina winning season, and he had posted elite regular season numbers. Plus, he was playing behind a Capitals team that surrendered a freakishly small number of shots and high scoring changes; it was hard to score against them because they always had the puck.

Halak had a good regular season, but he was a largely unknown commodity at the time. The decision to start him over Carey Price was highly contentious in Montreal, but ultimately this is where Jacques Martin chose to place his team’s fate.

Washington dropped Game 1 in overtime despite dominating; Halak kept the Canadiens afloat, while Theodore looked subpar. In Game 2, Theodore didn’t make a single save; he got yanked early, and the unproven Semyon Varlamov was thrown to the wolves. Washington went on to win three straight, taking a 3-1 lead in the series, but their foundation in net didn’t even see the net after some of the worst hockey of his career. Instead, they were resting their entire hopes on the inexperienced Varlamov.

Conversely, Halak was absolutely dialed in. Making a long story short, he stopped 131 of Washington’s 134 shots in games 5 through 7, leading Montreal to what is considered by many to be the greatest upset in NHL history. Washington’s poor goaltending gave Montreal’s pop-gun offense a chance, and their otherworldly goaltending gave them a chance to stifle a historically impressive offense.

Despite being the closest thing to a sure thing that any bookie could ever imagine, the series was ultimately decided on a goaltending matchup. Halak took the momentum he was building up in the early games, reaching his apogee with his incredible performances in games 5-7.

Watching goaltending matchups closely can give you an incredible edge when it comes to predicting who’s going to win a playoff series; Halak vs. Washington is just one case among a litany when a hot goaltender has derailed a heavy favorite.


Tracking a team’s injuries through the playoffs is doubtless the most important factor in predicting their success. If a team has lost 3 out of their top 4 centers, or 3 of their top 4 defensemen, their chances of winning are greatly reduced. With the amount of parity, speed, and skill in the NHL, players from lower in the lineup or the farm are going to be very hard pressed to replace injured regulars. The margins are so close in the NHL that any team plagued by the injury bug will doubtless suffer a drop in performance; the old aphorism “good teams play through it” is shaping up to be antiquated words of wisdom.

Further, you’ll notice what the last 10 cup winners have in common; they all had the majority of their core players playing. There’s no formula for winning, not speed, grit, tenacity, or skill; good, balanced teams win, especially when they’re more healthy than not.

A more famous example of the effect injuries can have on a team’s success is the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes warpath to the Stanley Cup. They were very fortunate to be facing a Buffalo team in the conference finals with a grand total of zero of its top four defenders in the lineup. Buffalo took itself an impressive distance against Carolina considering this massive disadvantage, but Buffalo could ultimately not overcome such a monumental obstacle. Defeated in seven games, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single soul who doesn’t think that a healthy Buffalo team makes short work of a fully healthy Carolina team.

In the cup final, Carolina was facing an Edmonton squad that had defied all expectations and made the finals, buoyed by the otherworldly goaltending of Dwayne Roloson. In Game 1, the Oiler’s Marc Andre Bergeron cross-checked Carolina’s Andrew Ladd onto Roloson’s knee, knocking him out for the series. Carolina won Game 1 in the dying seconds on an epic misplay by Edmonton’s backup, Ty Conklin, and went on the win the Stanley Cup. With Edmonton’s main strength neutralized by a freak injury in Game 1, Carolina had a much easier path to their championship. Injuries really do matter!

Before you bet on an NHL series, take a look at the injury reserve of each team. It’ll tell you a lot about each team’s chances. Despite what the media, or your sportsbook, might be indicating, injured teams lose more often than not. Grand narratives of a team’s perseverance in the face of injury devastation often turn out to be false ones.

Possession, Shot Totals, and Quality of Chance

Over the course of an NHL series, metrics like Corsi, Quality of Chances, PDO and Shot Totals can be reliable indicators of which team is controlling the play; the score often favors the team that is dictating play throughout a series. If you need a refresher or even an introduction to NHL advanced statistics, check out this helpful guide. You can track advanced statistics, both for individuals and teams, at Hockey Reference. This site is excellent for getting insights into specific games and series as well, presenting statistics, news, and succinct injury updates.

NHL advanced stats are layered and complex, and using them comprehensively is a very big undertaking. To bet on series, their application is a little simpler. Team advanced stats are much simpler than player advanced stats; they can provide much deeper and more complicated levels of analysis to individual players, and their usage/potential, than they can for teams.

Sometimes the dominant team isn’t getting the bounces, and despite superiority on the ice, they find themselves behind on the scoreboard. This is where reading into some advanced stats can give you an edge in placing your bets. Over the course of a full series, a team behind on the scoreboard but ahead in the play might correct itself to the mean; that’s the advantage of playing a complete seven games series. The law of averages is likely to come through, and the team controlling the play will likely end up controlling the scoreboard.

If you see a team that’s losing games, but dominating possession metrics, it could be a sign that they will soon start to win some games. A sportsbook is highly unlikely to reflect these considerations; this is a great way to get an edge in your NHL bets.

The Fernando Pisani Effect: The Unsung Heroes

Sometimes in the playoffs, the last player you’d ever expect to have an influence on a series, does. Everyone remembers Fernando Pisani’s 14 goals in Edmonton’s 2006 run; he was a career grinder who impacted every single series he was a part of. JP Pageau was 5th in goals in the 2017 playoffs. Bryan Bickell was a career grinder who was a hero in multiple of Chicago’s playoff runs. In Edmonton’s 2006 run, and Ottawa’s 2017 march to the conference finals, they were underdogs in every series; these players propelled them to victory.

Each of these skaters had a significant impact on their team’s chances; the more you watch the games and follow the storylines surrounding them, the more you can factor the unsung heroes performance into your series bets. Some players are meant to rise to the occasion.

Meet the authors

Matt McEwan
Dave F.
Sports Writer
William Hill
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