07/24/2005 11:00PM

Much guesswork in NHL odds

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With the NHL having reached a collective bargaining agreement with its players late last week, hockey fans and bettors had something positive to talk about for the first time in a year.

After losing the entire 2004-05 season to the lockout, the NHL will return this fall with a full season and a lot of changes. The red line will remain in the middle of the rink, but it will no longer be counted as part of the rule prohibiting two-line passes, leading to longer passes and opening up the offenses. The goals are also being moved two feet back toward the rear walls, and goalies will be forced to wear smaller pads and have less leeway to go after pucks away from the net.

All of the above should lead to more scoring and is the league's response to fears that the fans won't come back to the game.

The other big hockey news has been about phenom Sidney Crosby, who is expected to be the first pick by the Penguins in Saturday's amateur draft.

So, there have been plenty of hockey-related things to talk about, but gambling hasn't been one of them. That's because you won't find any odds posted yet on who will win the 2006 Stanley Cup.

"We're not planning to put up odds until at least after the draft," said Dan O'Brien, an oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

O'Brien said Crosby is being touted as the next big star, but since his presence can affect a team's odds, oddsmakers have to make sure he isn't traded before sending out the future-book odds. He added that there's even more uncertainty throughout the league than in the off-seasons of most sports.

"We need to see where the top young players go, plus there are a lot of free agents whose contracts expired in the past year and we have to see where they're going," O'Brien said.

With all the rule changes and an expected increase in scoring, it will be very interesting to see how oddsmakers adjust with totals on NHL games. In the past, totals were usually in the 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 range. Will the new rules add one goal a game? Two goals? Or more? Another factor is that there will no longer be ties, as games will be decided by a penalty-shot shootout if no one scores in the five-minute overtime session. This will also have to be factored into the lines.

The challenge for bettors will then be to figure out if the oddsmakers didn't adjust enough to the new rules (in which case the over would be the way to go early in the season), or if they increase the totals too much and create value on the other side (the under).

Preseason hockey games will probably be getting a lot more scrutiny than in past years.

One exhibition that won't be watched this hockey season is the all-star game, which has been canceled because the players would rather play in the Winter Olympics. That won't be missed by many people as, with no defense being played, it had become a joke in recent years.

Sports notes

At the baseball all-star break, I tabbed three teams - the Tigers, Astros, and Marlins - to start backing in the second half. Through Sunday, they were off to a decent start at 19-14. The Tigers were 7-5, with three of their wins as underdogs. The Astros were 7-4, and were coming on strong after being swept the first three games by the Cardinals after the break. And the Marlins were 5-5, though three of their wins were as dogs. So all three are at least showing a profit.

But I wish I had included the A's in that list. They're 9-2, with three of their wins also coming as dogs, and they're back in the AL wild-card race.

My bet-against teams - the White Sox, Orioles, Padres, and Nationals - have been more profitable; they're a combined 15-27 (meaning that by going against them you would be 27-15 so far, and with a lot of those games as underdogs). The Padres were 2-8, losing seven straight through Sunday. The Orioles were 3-7. The Nationals were 3-8. The White Sox won their first five games after the break and cut into my winnings, but they started skidding last week, going 2-4 in their last six, and were just 7-4 overall through Sunday.

* Kurt Busch got back in the Nextel Cup winner's circle Sunday with a victory in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway. Busch was the 9-1 co-second choice in wagering at Station Casinos. The stock cars will be idle this weekend before the next stop on the circuit on Aug. 7 for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, aka Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

* Ben Crane won the US Bank Championship in Milwaukee over the weekend. He was a 40-1 shot at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Battle of the Bridges pitting Tiger Woods and John Daly vs. Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen was played Monday night. Woods and Daly were a -125 favorite in the made-for-TV event. The Hilton also has Woods as the 2-1 favorite in this weekend's Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. Vijay Singh is the second choice at 13-2, and then there's a big dropoff to Jim Furyk at 12-1.

Carryover at Coast

Last Thursday, in the first Coast Casinos weekly contest of the Del Mar meet, no one hit the bonus jackpot, so there's a carryover of $20,760 heading into this Thursday's contest.

The entry fee is $10, with a limit of 15 entries per person. Contestants pick a horse in the first five races at Del Mar. Points are given for the mutuel price of each horse, plus 10 points for each win, 5 points for place, and 3 points for show. The top point-earner wins $2,000, with $1,000 going to the second-place finisher and $500 to third.

But the big payoff is if someone goes 5 for 5 and takes down the progressive jackpot. Coast Casinos - which include the Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, and Suncoast - will add $1,500 more to the pot Thursday and then add all the entry fees, so this week's jackpot will easily exceed $25,000.

The deadline is the first post on Thursday, though first-time participants should allow extra time to register.