One of the many tough things to deal with when handicapping the NHL or NBA playoffs is a team that wins their seven game series in just four or five games. Teams that win that quickly are all but certain to have a long break between the end of one series and the start of the next. Their opponent likely isn’t finished their series yet, and even if they are the league isn’t likely to start the next series until all the other series are over so that the series don’t get too out of whack. A team that sweeps can easily find themselves sitting on the sidelines for a week or longer. Teams rarely get a break like that, so it’s not immediately clear how they are going to handle it and whether they are going to be ready to play when their next series starts.
Ultimately, handicapping teams off of an extended break caused by a quick series win comes down to answering one question – are they going to be rested or rusty? Determining that ultimately requires you to make a guess, but by considering these four question you can make that guess a much more educated one and improve your chances of making a profitable pick to start the next series:
How do they use the time? – You can learn a lot about the mindset and physical and mental state of a team if you can find out how they spent their time off – something that is easy to do by looking at local newspapers or fan forums dedicated to the team. The ideal situation is one in which the teams are relaxed enough to take a few days off to get healthy and mentally recharged, and then spend the rest of the time practicing, preparing, and getting ready to continue their success. Any deviation from that is worth noting. A team that takes more time off than that, or which returns to practice but gives key players extra time off, could be one that isn’t physically sound and needs extra rest. That could be a problem that becomes a real issue as they progress deeper into the playoffs and things get tougher for them. A team that doesn’t take any time off before resuming practice clearly feels like they have too much to work on, and they may not feel like they were strong enough to win by as much as they did – or, more accurately, that they may not be strong enough to pull it off again against a tougher opponent.
Can they prepare for one opponent, or is opponent uncertain? – If the series that will determine the next opponent goes long then teams won’t know who they are playing for several days, and they can’t really prepare for their next series effectively. That problem can be even worse in the NHL than the NBA – teams are reseeded after each round, so it’s quite possible that a team could have several possible opponents to prepare for. If the team can’t effectively prepare for their opponent then one big advantage of having extra time off is limited.
How do they bounce back after layoffs? – It’s very rare for a team to have gone through a long break like this, but by looking back to those that come close we can learn a little that could be useful. The easiest one to look at is the all-star break. That break gives most players several days off without practice. How did the team come back from that break? Were they focused and ready, or did they look like they were still on a break? Next, you can look at abnormal gaps in the schedule that may have given teams a few extra days off. You won’t find breaks of a week, but you might find three or four days off, and that’s better than nothing. In the NHL there is one other very useful opportunity that arises every four years – the Olympic break. That’s almost two weeks of inaction that teams have to bounce back from. The one problem with using that is that good teams probably had several players playing in the Olympic tournament for several countries, so this break is more useful as a comparison for some teams than for others.
What will the public perception be? – Perhaps more significant than what you think is likely to happen is what the public is likely to think. That public perception will determine how the odds on these sports are set in the first place, and how they move after they are set. If the public perception differs from your perception then you have a real chance for value. There are some things that the public is really going to react to. If a team sweeps another good team then the public is going to give the team a whole lot of credit regardless of any other factors. They are likely to assume that an older team will get a particular boost from the time off because they need it. They’ll also assume that a few days off will miraculously make a team healthy. That’s not always the case.