04/15/2002 12:00AM

Lots of bang for your puck


One of my early sports betting gurus once said of the Stanley Cup playoffs: "I don't know a thing about hockey, but I love to bet and watch playoff games."

That sums up the thoughts of a lot of recreational bettors who will get involved now that the NHL postseason starts Wednesday. With 16 teams making the playoffs, the 80-game season has a lot of meaningless games, but postseason games are high on intensity and low on scoring. That equals three hours (and more if a game goes to overtime) of nail-biting action for every bet made.

Bettors love to go with a hot goalie who can carry a team at playoff time, but beware that lines can be inflated on "name" goalies and offer value on the other side.

The same goes for totals. Over the past 10 years, the number of goals per game has dropped by a half-goal from the regular season to the playoffs. Oddsmakers know this and make a lot of totals in the 4 1/2 and 5 range.

Tradewinds, an offshore book, was the first to post odds on Wednesday's first-round games. It made the totals 5 1/2 on three of the four games and posted a 6 on the Coyotes-Sharks game. If Vegas books follow suit, I'd jump on the unders early, but I suspect they will post lower totals. Vegas odds were expected to be posted late on Monday.

The first round offers a number of interesting matchups:

Red Wings-Canucks: Detroit is the 5-2 favorite to win it all, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, and it obviously will be a huge favorite in this series. The temptation might be to bet against the Red Wings, who went winless in their seven games since clinching the NHL's best record, but this veteran team has been resting a lot of players and should be ready to roll. History supports this. The Wings were 7-7-6 down the stretch in 1997 before going on to win the Cup. Last year, they were 20-4-5 before getting ousted in the first round.

Blues-Blackhawks: The Blackhawks were one of the surprise teams this year and looked like a lock to have home-ice advantage in their opening-round series. But the Hawks were 2-4-1 down the stretch while the Blues won eight of their last 10. The Blues are the team to play.

Avalanche-Kings: The defending Stanley Cup champion Avs had trouble getting past the Kings last year in the conference semifinals, but they won't take the Kings so lightly this year. However, with Colorado's Patrick Roy and L.A.'s Felix Potvin in the nets, I think the under is the better play in these games.

Bruins-Canadiens: Boston is the top seed in the East, but Montreal is one of the league's hottest teams and have a hot goalie, Jose Theodore. I'll be looking to play the dog, especially at home, and wouldn't be surprised if the Canadiens win the series at a juicy price.

Panthers-Devils: Carolina is the higher seed and has home ice, but the Devils are a tough first-round draw. It won't be an upset if the Devils win the series because they'll probably be the betting favorite, and rightly so.

Another Masterful performance

Considering Tiger Woods's legendary killer instinct, it was no surprise that he won The Masters, especially when he was tied for the lead heading into Sunday's final round. In fact, Jeff Sherman, sports book supervisor at the Palms, made Woods the 1-2 favorite after Saturday's third round.

"The surprising thing is that he did it so easily," Sherman said after Woods coasted home with a 1-under-par 71 Sunday when no one challenged him. "Tiger got a few early birdies and it was over. Everyone else was playing for second place. It certainly didn't live up to the anticipation heading into Sunday."

The Palms and most other books in town fared well with Woods's seventh major victory and third green jacket. The Palms had Woods at 11-4 early last week and actually raised him to 3-1 by the time betting closed. Most other books discouraged betting on Woods by having him between 8-5 and 5-2.

On Monday, the Palms posted odds on the next major, the U.S. Open, which will be held June 13-16 at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y. Woods is the 2-1 favorite. Sherman said he had to adjust the line after Woods's victory.

"Honestly, I was leaning toward opening him at 7-2 if he didn't win," Sherman said. "He closed at 3-1 after we didn't have many significant bets on him in The Masters, and the U.S. Open is the toughest test in golf because par wins it and it's the one that is the most trouble for Tiger. But with him winning, people will be looking to bet him because he won The Masters and they're thinking he can win the Grand Slam."

That wouldn't be a bad thing for the Palms, which is already paying off bets on Woods to win a major. Woods was -175 in that year-long prop. If Woods wins the Grand Slam, the Palms would get to keep all the money wagered on all other golfers in the prop.

Reno tourney a real value

Reno calls itself the Biggest Little City in the World, and it also has a small handicapping tournament that is big for its size. That's not as convoluted as it sounds.

The Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament will be held Thursday and Friday at the downtown casino, and it's attracting many top tournaments winners. The entry fee is $500, just like a lot of other major tourneys, but because the tournament not as established as other events, the field is relatively small. Only about 50 entrants were signed up as of Monday morning. The thing that really makes it appealing for tournament veterans is that first prize is 50 percent of entry fees or $20,000 guaranteed, whichever is greater. Unless 80 people enter, that's a nice overlay.

Second place is worth 20 percent of entry fees, and the prize structure pays through 10th place. There are also daily prizes, and an awards banquet on Friday night.

Contestants select 10 races a day from six contest tracks and make mythical bets of $200 across the board. Payoffs are capped at 25-1 to win, 12-1 to place, and 6-1 to show.

Players have until Thursday morning to sign up. Call (800) 991-7277 to register or for more information.