NHL Betting Fact or Fiction: Are Unders a Good Bet in Game 7?
David Berding/Getty Images.Pictured: Marc-Andre Fleury
It’s seventh heaven on Friday night as the Minnesota Wild and Vegas Golden Knights will face off in Vegas in a highly anticipated Game 7. We were close to getting two more Game 7s, but the Penguins and Panthers could not get the job done. Still, it’s an improvement over Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when no Round 1 series went the distance.
Game 7s always bring more drama and that means there will be a lot of noise. Almost all of it should be ignored, but there is one trend that I do think is worth diving into: NHL Game 7 Unders. Let’s take a look at the historical data.
Since 1996, the Under has gone 41-27-13 in 81 Game 7’s when the total is set at 5 goals or more. If you throw out pushes, you come away with a 60% win rate and that includes some horrific bad beats for under bettors in large part due to late empty net goals when teams pull their goalie (sometimes sooner than usual) in a win-or-go-home scenario. I hope none of you had the Bruins-Leafs Game 7 Under 5.5 in 2019, when Boston scored its second empty net goal with 0.3 seconds remaining to win 5-1. Pain, but that comes with the territory.
So, why has the Under historically been a good bet in Game 7s? One hypothesis is that teams tend to play tighter in do-or-die contests and become more guarded with a lead. Injury and fatigue can also play a role. But to me, the most important ingredient in this trend is the officiating.
Referees generally swallow their whistles with so much at stake — afraid to make an incorrect call or impact the outcome of such a critical game. You see this in on the biggest stages of other sports as well, such as the Super Bowl.
Consequently, we see fewer power plays in Game 7’s — and the chance of a goal obviously increases when one team has a man advantage. And that’s not just anecdotal as you will see from the data below.
I pulled penalty data from Hockey Reference for every NHL playoff game over the past 30 seasons (not including this season). I then split those more than 2,600 postseason games into two subsets (Games 1-6 and Game 7) to isolate the penalty differential. The results are staggering.
Since 1990, we have seen seven fewer penalty minutes on average in Game 7 compared to Games 1-6. One could also argue that players are more cautious in Game 7s, thus also leading to fewer penalties. However, the data doesn’t suggest any material drop in physicality. Another factor that I think holds more water is you generally have a hot goalie or two in rhythm in a long, competitive series.
Not surprisingly, this penalty trend gets amplified in the Stanley Cup Finals, so keep that in mind if we get the ultimate seventh heaven treat later on this postseason.
Teams have combined to score an average of only 4.06 goals in 17 Stanley Cup Final Game 7’s. Only one of those contests featured more than five goals and 14 ended with four or fewer. In fact, since 1950, all 15 NHL Stanley Cup Final Game 7’s have featured five or fewer goals, with an average of under four goals per game.
In the most recent Stanley Cup Final Game 7, the Blues and Bruins combined for five goals in a game with only one penalty.
Back to the Well?
As with any bet, it ultimately comes down to the price. Markets do adjust over time — although I have still found value on the Under in the most recent Game 7s. For example, if a Game 7 Over/Under opens at 4.5, I would pass. At the time of writing, the Over/Under for Friday’s Game 7 between the Wild and Golden Knights is set at 5.5 with the Under juiced to -137 (DraftKings). I think that anything better than -140 on the under is worth a bet. Don’t forget, only two of the six games between the Wild and Knights have featured more than four goals.
Yes, there is always the risk of an empty-netter (or two) spoiling the party for under bettors, but that won’t keep me away if the price is right. Not only do I think Minnesota’s style is very conducive to an under in this scenario, but I also trust both in-form netminders on this pressure-filled stage.