March is the beginning of an exciting time for sports bettors. The main event is likely the NCAA Basketball Tournament aka ‘March Madness’ along with all of the conference tournaments that precede it. April brings both the NBA and NHL playoffs but in the meantime teams in both sports will be trying to lock up a postseason spot or trying to improve upon their seeding. At least the teams in contention will–there are plenty of teams that are ‘playing out the string’ and either mathematically or practically eliminated from the playoff hunt.
This disparity can present some strong betting situations for the astute handicapper. Of the two sports, the distinction between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the NBA is more pronounced than in hockey. This is due to a number of factors but one significant one is the vested interest that teams have in finishing near the bottom of the standings. The lower the teams are in the standings the better chance they have to get the top pick in the NBA Draft. In a good year, this can get a struggling team a franchise player such as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. Even in a ‘down year’ they can get a serviceable player either through the draft or by trading the pick.
A secondary factor that makes the NBA less attractive for the ‘contenders vs. pretenders’ concept should be obvious: the pointspread. When a good team faces a bad team they’ll be a sizable favorite but might not have the motivation to cover a big number. Teams in that situation are often happy to just get a win and in some cases rest key personnel. As the pointspread involved increases the more difficult it is to bet a superior favorite even against the most lowly bottom feeder.
The concept is far more effective in NHL hockey. There are more teams fighting for the playoffs and fewer teams ‘playing out the string’ which might mean fewer opportunistic matchups but when they do arise they’re typically very strong plays.
The situation that we’re looking for is a strong road favorite that is either playoff bound or fighting for a spot against a team that no longer has a realistic shot at the postseason. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to just blindly bet road favorites even in late season NHL action. There are too many situations where a mediocre team will be a sizable road favorite against a true doormat. For example, on tomorrow night’s card the Minnesota Wild are a -200 chalk at Detroit against the Red Wings. The Wings are a horrific team but as bad as they are it’s tough to justify the Wild at this price. They might already be out of playoff contention which makes them all the less attractive.
Another situation you want to avoid is an elite team playing on the road against a motivated team on the playoff ‘bubble’. Another game from tomorrow night’s card is a great example–the Washington Capitals are leading the Metropolitan Division and are -145 favorites against the Jets at Winnipeg. You can make a solid case that the Caps are the better team but there are several reasons you’d likely want to be on the home dog here. This is the second in a home and home ‘quick rematch’ situation with the Caps winning in Washington on Tuesday night. Washington has 3 of their last 4 on the road and have lost -7.2 units in the month of February.
The type of spot we’re looking for is found in yet another game on the Thursday night betting board. Vancouver is a -160 favorite at Ottawa and this matchup has the situation we’re looking for. The Canucks are in a battle for the top spot in the Pacific Division while the Senators have lost 4 straight and 7 of 10. It’s a team on the road to the playoffs against an opponent that is unlikely to make the postseason. In fact, the Senators are close to being mathematically eliminated from postseason play.
So how do we isolate a play like this? One way is to just evaluate each matchup individually. This is the most time consuming but can produce the most nuanced result. The hockey betting board is seldom extensive enough to preclude this type of handicapping. There’s nothing wrong with having a significant ‘burden of proof’ in playing a road favorite and this handicapping method would produce the most rigorous analysis.
If you’d rather have a less arbitrary set of guidelines there are a number of ways to divide the playoff ‘contenders’ from the ‘pretenders’. One of the most effective is to use the playoff probability percentages that can be found on a variety of websites. Look for situations where teams with a playoff probability of over 50% are playing opponents with a probability under 50%. There are other ways to do it, but they’re essentially different ways at getting to the same result.