In the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs there were a couple of very interesting lessons to be learned by NHL handicappers who are committed to long term success. Washington faced the Rangers and they were dominant. They cruised through in five games and looked like they were settling in for a long playoff run. The Flyers had a bigger challenge against the Sabres, but they won the last two games of the series – including a dominating performance in the final game – and looked like they had piles of momentum to carry in the second round. Four games later both teams were out of the playoffs. Washington was out-hustled and outworked by a dangerous Tampa Bay team, and Philadelphia basically lay down and quit against the Bruins. Both NHL teams went from being on the verge of big things to hitting the golf course, and they did it so swiftly and dramatically that a lot of people were caught off guard by the results. It’s not like either hockey team had gotten lucky in the first round, either – they were the two highest seeded teams in the Eastern Conference.
There are a lot of specific reasons why these two NHL teams failed to get started in their second round series, but I’m not that interested in those – it’s not like that exact series is ever going to be played again, so looking back at specifics isn’t very useful. What I am very interested in as a NHL handicapper, though, is looking at it in more general terms. Both of these highly respected, talented teams clearly ran out of gas by the time the second round started. They had been doing things right, but suddenly they weren’t capable of doing those things anymore. If you could have spotted that these teams were in trouble before it became apparent to everyone watching then you could have cashed some serious profits. What lessons can they teach in general terms to help us in future situations? Here’s a look at three indicators that a team could be reaching the end of the line in terms of their effectiveness. One that I haven’t bothered to put on the list is injuries. Those are obviously very significant – especially if the injuries pile up in playoff times – but those impacts are well known, well covered, and compensated for in the betting lines:
Mental fatigue – By the time a hockey team has made the second round of the NHL playoffs they have played close to 100 games between the preseason, regular season and playoffs. That’s basically a game every other day for almost seven months. No matter how much you love hockey and how fit you are that is going to be physically and mentally exhausting. For some teams, though, the toll can be particularly exhausting. The Capitals, for example, made a renewed effort to focus on their defensive play in 2011. It worked – they had the best record in the East – but it was far from a smooth process. Megastar Alexander Ovechkin struggled offensively because of the change, and there were rough spots for the team and in the way they players and coaches interacted. As the playoffs started you could almost feel the team’s weariness and mental fatigue just by looking at them and listening to them. It had been a lot to go through, and it had taken too much of a toll. You couldn’t specifically tell when the effect of the situation would ultimately be too much, but it gave a good reason to be cautious and on alert regarding the team. The same thing could be the case if a NHL coach has clashed with players, if the team’s management has been unstable or unpopular, if a star player has faced contract issues or trade demands, or anything else that has added significantly to the already significant mental burden of surviving the season. Sports bettors don’t know when those situations will have an effect, but they can be confident that at some point they will if the team is facing an opponent who hasn’t been similarly tested.
Lack of hunger – Philadelphia in 2011 provides a good example of what I am talking about here. The year before they had made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Blackhawks in six games. They were an upstart team in the NHL that rode a wave of momentum. They were hungry for success, they believed in themselves, and they were unstoppable right up to the end. In 2011 their record was much better and they were a more consistent regular season team, but they didn’t seem to be nearly as hungry or as determined to succeed. Heading into the second round the Bruins were very vocal about their desire to seek revenge for getting knocked out of the playoffs by Philly the year before. The Flyers refused to engage in any conversation like that. It just didn’t seem like Philadelphia was particularly hungry, and teams need to be starving for success to win in the NHL playoffs. This is admittedly a vague, touchy-feely type of discussion that won’t sound very meaningful for people who favor concrete statistics and trends in their handicapping. By looking at how teams are carrying themselves and how they are performing, though, a sports bettor can get some very powerful insights in this area that can help them get ahead of the odds and the crowd. It’s not scientific, and it’s far from exact because we can’t get into the locker room or into the heads of the players, but it is a way to find an edge nonetheless.
Matchup issues – In their first round victory the Flyers used three different goalies. There were no serious injury issues – just a lack of confidence in any available option. I am not sure that there has ever been a team in the playoffs that has consciously chosen to be that fickle in the nets. There certainly hasn’t been a successful one that has done that. Successful playoff teams are always always carrying a hot goalie, so the situation the Flyers had was a major warning that they had problems in nets – and those problems were the biggest reason they were disastrously bad against Boston. You won’t often get a team that is so obviously unprepared in the nets, but there will regularly be a situation where a team just isn’t likely to be able to compete going forward as teams get faster, goalies get hotter, scorers get better, and defense gets more stout. If you can watch a series close enough to spot these potential issues then as a smart NHL handicapper you can have a good sense of where the problems may lie for the team down the road – even if they can win their current series.