People who don’t spend a lot of time betting on hockey – and even those who do – often have trouble determining what the role of goalies is in the outcome of games, and how to deal with them. In my view – or at least in a simplified view – goalies are the key to it all. Just like you make a betting determination in baseball based on who the starting pitcher is, the first and most important factor in a hockey game is who the starting goalie is. When you are thinking about the role of goalies in your hockey handicapping here are six things to keep in mind:
Goalies are the starting point – Before you do any other handicapping of a game – offensive and defensive matchups, trends, streaks, and so on – you should start by looking at the goalies. Who is going to be playing for both teams? What kind of form are those goalies in? How have these goalies done in the recent past against their opponents. You can’t make a betting decision based just on the goalies, but you can sure find a starting point. If you see a goaltending mismatch then you explore the rest of the matchup to see if the edge holds up under closer scrutiny. Goalies are the crucial component because they are – in a manner unique to all of sports – involved in every single goal scored against them. If an opponent scores on a goalie then the goalie was either beaten or out of position. If the opponent doesn’t score on a strong chance then it’s because the goalie made a big save. More than any other position in any sport a goalie has the ability to turn a win into a loss and vice versa.
Be sure of who the starter is – When you are handicapping baseball you usually know who the starting pitcher is going to be days in advance. That’s definitely not the case in hockey. Technically, coaches don’t have to let anyone know who is starting until game time. In many cases the difference between the starter and the backup is major, so it is very important to be sure that you know who the starting goalie is going to be before you make a selection. Many sites will only speculate, so you need to find a source that lists goalies only once they have verified them – or at least have a good reason for believing that they will start. It also makes sense to understand which teams like to make a secret of their starters, and which ones are open and predictable about it.
Job security isn’t what it was – Back in the glory days of goaltenders there was a distinct path to a career. A goalie would be drafted, spend a couple of years in the minors getting seasoned, back up the starter for a year or two, and then move into a starting role only once he was deemed ready. Once he got the starting role he was likely to keep it for years. That’s just not the case anymore. Equipment is better. Defensive schemes are better. Goalie training is better. European hockey player development is much better. Goalies are appearing virtually from nowhere, and they are entering the NHL ready for action. Some of the best goalies in the league right now are guys who no one had ever heard of three years ago. There’s a good chance that no on will remember who a few of them were a few years from now, too. Stars one minute can be sent to the discard pile the next minute, and guys who did nothing for one team can dominate for another. If you are holding on to old attitudes about goalies, or if you are judging guys based on their names and what they have done in the past, then you are in real long term trouble with your betting.
Goalies can change year to year – More correctly, goalies can change from week to week. As I said in the last point, if you are basing what a goalie is capable of now on what they have done in the past then you are making a mistake. When I am evaluating a goalie I like to look at any stats I am using in three different time frames – the whole season, the last 10 starts, and the last five starts. This allows you to see how goalies are changing, and whether they are moving into better or worse form. If you don’t use a short time frame like that then it is easy to be betting on or against a totally different player than you thought you were.
Streaks are very real, and should be ridden – It’s not at all uncommon to see a guy get hot and get a couple of shutouts in a row, or three shutouts in six games. For whatever reason, goalies can get confident for a stretch of games, and it’s like they are stopping a beach ball. Goalies can also have rough patches where they couldn’t even stop that beach ball. In short, goalies are extremely streaky, and it makes very good sense to be aware of those streaks and to ride them when appropriate.
Goalies can be evenly matched – It is not at all uncommon to see a game in which the goalies are reasonably well matched – both guys are similarly competent and neither team has an edge. If that’s the case then that doesn’t mean that you automatically shouldn’t bet on a game. It just means that you have to look beyond that to find an edge. In some sports the lack of a difference in the key position would be a deal breaker, but that’s not the case in hockey.