Veteran sports bettors know that there are few things as thankless as being an NHL goalie in the Stanley Cup finals. If your team wins then you are likely a hero, but you often won’t get the respect or attention of the powerful forward or the flashy defenseman. If you lose, though, then chances are good that the majority of the blame will fall on your shoulders. Goalies are treated like that because their job is so incredibly important. No player can impact the way a Stanley Cup finals turns out more than a goalie. Becasue of this, there is no position that is more important for NHL bettors to properly evaluate and handicap than the goalies. When you are looking at how the teams match up in the finals the automatic starting point should be at the two well padded guys in the nets. If there is a mismatch there then chances are good that there is a mismatch in the series as a whole. Here are six factors for NHL handicappers to consider when evaluating how the goalies in a series match up:
Consistency – The pressure and intensity in the Stanley Cup is dramatically higher than in any round up to this point. These hockey players have dreamed of being there their whole lives, the sporting world is focused on them, and every move they make could be the difference between championships and disaster. That can be tough on any player, but is especially tough on NHL goalies because they are the last line of defense, and can have such a massive impact on the outcome of a series. If a player hasn’t been particularly consistent throughout the playoffs then he isn’t likely to improve on that front in the face of this heightened pressure. To get a sense of consistency you need to look beyond basic ice stats to actually game-by-game performance. For example, you can’t tell a lot about how consistent a player has been just by the fact he has had a 2.00 goals against average. If that has come from allowing four goals one game and a shutout the next that’s not consistent and would be a concern in the finals. If he had allowed two goals every game though, then his focus is constant regardless of changing conditions around him and he’s much more likely to stand up to the rigors of the finals. You can also look at how consistent a player is when the games are on the line. If he is much better and more consistent in games five, six and seven in a series than in games one and two then he could be the type of player who thrives under pressure, and he could really shine in the added pressure of the Cup finals.
Play versus opponent – If the hockey player has played against the opponent a significant number of times in recent years then this can be a reliable sense of how the player might perform. This is rarely useful, though, because NHL teams only play opponents in the other conference once or twice per year, so the sample size of play isn’t likely large enough to be useful. The only ways the sample size would be big enough is if the teams had met in the finals the previous year, or if the goalie had recently played in the other NHL conference.
Recent form – We talked about consistency earlier, but in NHL handicapping it doesn’t matter how consistent a player is if he hasn’t been good. If a hockey team doesn’t have a goalie who hasn’t been spectacular then it is hard to trust them in the playoffs. The way the NHL has evolved recently, good enough just isn’t good enough anymore. If a team has had any goalie issues at all they likely aren’t going to make the finals, and if they do then they are likely going to have a big challenge to overcome. If the form of one goalie is drastically better than that of the other than the NHL team with the better goaltending is almost certainly going to have an edge in the series.
Intimidation factor – There are some guys who rise up in the face of intense pressure, and others who crumble under it. Even great goalies can handle the pressure poorly – Roberto Luongo was an elite star when he took Vancouver to the finals in 2011, but his performance once he got there was terrible. The more of a sense you can get of how the guy in net might handle the pressure of the situation the better off you are going to be when making your bets.
Matchup versus opponent – Ultimately the goalie is going to have to face his opponents in as many as seven consecutive games. If he matches up well against that opponent then he could be in for a good series. If he has weaknesses that the other team can exploit, then he could be in real trouble. Maybe he doesn’t handle big shots from the point well, and the opponent has a couple of defensemen with cannons. Or perhaps the goaltender struggles against breakaways and the opposition is full of speedsters. Perhaps he is weak on the glove side, and the other team has snipers who can find the holes. It’s very important for NHL handicappers to get a sense of whether this particular matchup will be a challenge or not.
Public perception – There are some goalies that the public has very high opinions of, and others that have negative reputations, or that the public doesn’t know much about. Goalies are like quarterbacks or starting pitchers in the sense that the public perception of them can color the way the whole team is treated by bettors. Sports bettors need to understand what biases the public is likely to have in a series so they can understand whether that is likely to accurately reflect how they think the goalies stack up, and what opportunities that presents for you as a bettor.