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Wagering on the NHL: The trends, the pitfalls and best bets

With Steven Stamkos, left, and Nikita Kucherov anchoring a dominant top line and power play, the Lightning have the NHL's top group of forwards. Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman used to say that sports wagering was "inconsistent" with the league's image and values. Today, he openly talks about gambling on hockey as a way to create more fans for the sport. What changed?

"The Supreme Court," Bettman said earlier this season.

Last May, the Court ruled that parts of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 were unconstitutional, allowing states to legalize sports wagering. As of March, there are eight states with full-scale legal wagering on sports, with two more -- Arkansas and New York -- on track to offer it soon.

For hockey, the rollout has been slow overall -- just four of those 10 states have NHL teams, leaving 14 states with franchises left to go -- but rapid within states that have legalized wagering. The NHL established a partnership with MGM, while the Vegas Golden Knights and New Jersey Devils partnered with William Hill to bring tote boards into their arenas; the Devils made a second partnership with Caesars to create a gambling-themed lounge inside their building.

But the biggest news in hockey and sports wagering arrived at the NHL All-Star Game, when Bettman announced that the NHL planned on bringing player and puck tracking technology to the league in 2019-20, after several tests this season. "Our original goal in creating this technology was to create a broadcast enhancement that can be used in real time, which no other sport has. While not developed with this in mind, the application to sports gaming could create even more fans," he said.

Indeed it could, with mobile wagering technology that would allow fans to wager on something as myopic as from which part of the ice the next goal would be scored to something as immediate as selecting which player will score in overtime.

This season offered a glimpse at a new frontier for hockey that could break down barriers to an expanded fan base. But what about the wagering that's happening now?

Here are some of the best (and worst) wagers so far, trends to watch and best bets going forward for the 2018-19 NHL season.

Note: All odds, unless otherwise specified, are from Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.


Trend spotting

The Tampa Bay Lightning are good at just about everything, and that includes beating the spread. The Bolts are 45-16 against the spread this season. It's no surprise that three of the top four offensive teams in the NHL have over 40 wins against the number: The Toronto Maple Leafs (third, 41-26 ATS) and the Calgary Flames (fourth, 41-26 ATS) are the others, with the San Jose Sharks (second, 39-27 ATS) right there with them.

But lest you believe it's as simple as "pick the high-scoring team," the Pittsburgh Penguins are fifth in the NHL goals per game but just 34-31 ATS this season.

The Detroit Red Wings are the worst ATS team this season at 21-43, and it's easy to see why: Just nine of their 23 wins this season were by two or more goals, while 22 of their 33 losses have been by two or more goals.

The Golden Knights were a juggernaut against the number last season, clicking at around a 63 percent success rate through the Stanley Cup Final. This season? Not so much. Vegas is just 34-31 ATS, including a pedestrian 20-14 ATS at home, where they were so dominant last season.

The St. Louis Blues have been the story of the second half of the season, leading a charge from the bottom of the conference to third in the Central Division. But they're still just 34-31 ATS.

When it comes to hitting the over, there is one team that's exceeded expectations: The Chicago Blackhawks. While just 26-39 ATS, they are a remarkable 43-18-5 to the over this season -- including 22-7-4 on the road, where they're sixth in the NHL in goals scored (109).

The worst over/under road team? The Dallas Stars, who have covered in just 20 percent of their 34 road games (7-22-5).

Two interesting anomalies from otherwise dominant home teams: The Boston Bruins are 25-7-3 at home but just 14-18-3 there against the point total -- perhaps a byproduct of playing in 22 one-goal games this season. The Nashville Predators are 22-12-1 on home ice but just 12-20-3 against the over, having scored just 104 goals at home (17th in the NHL).

One area that Vegas sharps have been watching is first-period overs -- but not necessarily league-wide, as Vegas Stats & Information Network's Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard first pointed out. If you see the Blackhawks on the schedule, you really ought to consider laying some money on the first-period over. They have now gone over the first-period total in an incredible 22 of their last 23 games.

The Blackhawks are fifth in scoring in the opening frame, but also allow the most goals in the first (90). And if you catch them on a night when they are playing either the Lightning, Sharks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Devils, Penguins or Ottawa Senators, you'll definitely want to consider making a bet. Those six teams trail the Blackhawks, in order, in combined goals-for plus goals-against in the first 20 minutes of their games this season. All seven eclipse 130 total, with Chicago way out in front with 161.

While sportsbooks typically toy with the game over/under, the first period is often seen as a spin of the roulette wheel. It is almost always right at 1.5. But with these teams -- especially the Blackhawks, Lightning and Sharks -- that first-period over has been hitting all season long. Sure enough, it hit again this past weekend when the Blackhawks traveled to San Jose. Those two play each other again on March 28.

-- Wyshynski and Arledge


Best bets of the season

Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames or New York Islanders to win the Stanley Cup

Let's get this out of the way now: Betting on the Bolts to win the Cup even as a 7-1 favorite was incredibly brilliant. They are scoring 3.84 goals per night, while just allowing 2.61 on average. Their sheer dominance has them now sitting at 7-2, cutting the number in half since October. Based on real Cup potential, the Lightning are the best bet of the season.

But if you are looking for better value while not sacrificing a ton in the actually-can-win department, the Flames are right there. They opened the season as a 30-1 bet, and all they've done is climb to the No. 2 seat in the NHL. The goaltending is a very real concern, especially over the course of a two-month, grueling playoff run, but at those odds, you have to feel pretty good if you made an investment.

And finally, there's the John Tavares-less Islanders. They came into opening night at 100-1. It's been a good story, and they could play spoiler for a round or two, but New York isn't likely to lift the Cup this season. However, we obviously aren't entirely ruling it out, and if the Islanders do continue to shock the hockey world, a few loyal fans -- or some real savvy bettors -- are in for a nice payday.

The Montreal Canadiens will make the playoffs

To be clear, this is far from a lock. As of writing this, Montreal was clinging to the second wild card in the East. But considering the Habs were +425 to make the postseason when the puck dropped in October, this still registers as a great bet on the year -- for now. Carey Price looks pretty good this season, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have settled into their new team with 22 goals apiece and Jonathan Drouin has 50 points. No one expected it, but Montreal has a real good chance at playing in late April. Others with great value include +280 on the Islanders making the playoffs, and +150 on Anaheim going golfing.

-- Arledge


Worst bets of the season

Edmonton Oilers or Anaheim Ducks to win the Stanley Cup

It's hard to look back at this through the billowing smoke of a dumpster fire that consumed a coach, a general manager and Drake Caggiula this season, but Westgate had Edmonton at 20-1 to win the Stanley Cup this season. That's the same odds for the Ducks, another contender-turned-pretender who also fired their coach this season. Edmonton is seven points out of the playoffs, while the Ducks are 11 out.

The New York Islanders won't make the playoffs

In the preseason odds, betting that the Islanders would miss the playoffs had the same moneyline payout as betting that the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals would make them, at -300. While they're not cemented in the postseason quite yet, the Islanders are second in the Metropolitan with 83 points and have a 95.1 percent chance to qualifying for the postseason, per MoneyPuck.com. The preseason money line on making the playoffs for the Islanders was +280.

-- Wyshynski


Checking in on win totals

Interestingly enough, the team on pace to beat the win total number by the most is also the team that entered the year with the highest number. The Lightning are incredibly on a 130-point pace, which would beat the Westgate number of 107.5 by 22.5. That's a lot of leeway. The Islanders already went over their 81.5 number, despite having 16 games left, while the Flames, Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes are all on pace to beat their numbers by double-digits. Montreal would pass its number with another win, as would Tampa Bay.

But in all, 18 teams are projected to come up short of the win total number. And none by as much as the Ducks. Their 74-point pace is 21.5 short of the 95.5 number Westgate gave them back in the preseason, and it's not likely they close the season with any burst of energy. The Los Angeles Kings and Devils are also right around 20 games shy of pacing the Vegas number, and the Florida Panthers and Oilers 10 games behind.

The biggest races to the finish line? The Maple Leafs are currently pacing about one point north of their 105.5 number, while the Blue Jackets are about the same distance south of their 96.5 total.

-- Arledge


Best bets for the remainder of the season

Winnipeg Jets (12-1)

The Jets are atop the Central Division, yet are still hauling just 12-1 odds to win it all. They went and got Kevin Hayes at the deadline to add one more asset to a powerful offense that features a player with 81 points and an additional three with at least 25 goals. Winnipeg might just end up being the team to beat out west in the playoffs, so get in now while you can.

Nashville Predators (12-1)

It's actually pretty amazing that the Preds are still a double-digit Cup-odds team. They have two terrific goaltenders, a 50-point defenseman and numerous scoring threats. The deadline additions of Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund will play important roles for this Nashville team as it embarks on yet another attempt at winning the Cup.

Washington Capitals (14-1)

There are better teams to back, but at this number, I have to pause on passing on the defending champs. Alex Ovechkin is going to hit 50 goals again, and the team behind him is every bit as good as it was a season ago, albeit this go-around is minus Barry Trotz behind the bench. Another important component to remember: The Caps will likely avoid the juggernaut Atlantic Division until the Eastern Conference Finals, making their path there easier and lightening the potential load of the Cup run.

-- Arledge