10/05/2004 11:00PM

NHL betting on track, even though season isn't

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People ask me all the time if I ever run out of topics to write about on the sports-betting beat.

It would be easy to get on my high horse on top of a soap box and pontificate about how I have my finger on the pulse of the sports-betting world (and mix in a few more metaphors along the way), but the truth of the matter is that the way the sports calendar is laid out makes it a pretty formulaic approach.

January has the major bowl games and the NFL playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl. February is the start of the Nascar season. March has, well, March Madness. April starts the baseball season. May has the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and leads into June with our seemingly yearly flirtation with a Triple Crown in the Belmont. July is a good time for my vacation in the middle of the dog days of summer, and then we start the Saratoga and Del Mar meets. August means it's full-speed ahead with preparations for football, which really gets going in September. In October, attention turns to the road to the Breeders' Cup and the start of the baseball playoffs.

And that brings us to this week. Glancing at my master calendar for 2004, I'm due to write about the start of the NHL season.

Oops! The best laid plans . . .

The NHL owners have locked out the players after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, so the season won't be starting next Wednesday, and there is no end to the impasse in sight. Even though there won't be any hockey lines or totals posted in any Las Vegas sports books for a while, that doesn't mean the books aren't taking any bets.

Stanley Cup futures are still offered at most books in town, with the defending champion Lightning at around a 5-1 favorite, followed by the Red Wings at 6-1, and the Senators, Flyers, Avalanche, and Maple Leafs in the 7-1 to 8-1 range.

It's hard to fathom why someone would bet on this since it's been known for a long time that the season was in jeopardy - and sports book managers predictably report that handle is at an all-time low - but there has been some action, and some bettors have sought refunds as the inevitable has come to pass.

Those bettors, however, are out of luck. The standard disclaimer being used by the books is "all bets are action as long as a champion is crowned sometime in 2005." So, whether they play a partial season, or just conduct a tournament, as long as there is an official Stanley Cup champion the winning bets will be paid. But even if there is no season, the books have the right to hold all tickets until the no-result becomes official.

Once again, let the bettor beware.

WNBA reaches final round

The WNBA finals, which is contested in a best-of-three series, starts Friday with the Connecticut Sun favored by 2 points at home over the Seattle Storm. The second game Sunday and the third game, if necessary, on Tuesday will be played in Seattle. Las Vegas Sports Consultants estimates the Storm will be favored by 8 points in their home games. No official series price has been posted, but an LVSC representative said the Storm would be around a 1-2 favorite based on those point spreads.

New leader in Nascar points race

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday to take a 13-point lead over Kurt Busch in the Nextel Cup points race. But his use of an expletive in a TV interview led to a $10,000 fine by Nascar and a 25-point reduction in his points total.

Heading into this weekend's event at the Kansas Speedway, Busch leads Junior by 12 points, with Jeff Gordon 48 points back and Mark Martin 98 points back. In Station Casinos' adjusted odds for the points title, however, Gordon is the 7-5 favorite, followed by Earnhardt at 9-5, Busch at 3-1, and Martin at 4-1.

Football contest updates

In the battle of the only two handicappers in the history of the Stardust Invitational to go 7-0, Kevin O'Neill went 4-3 with a best-bet winner, but he was no match for California math professor Mike Orkin, who started out 5-0 in Sunday's early NFL games before pushing on the Buccaneers +3 vs. the Broncos and losing on the 49ers +3 1/ 2 vs. the Rams. Orkin's 5-1-1 mark advances him in the single-elimination field of 16. This Friday night's matchup will pit handicapper David Malinsky vs. poker-pro-turned-sports-bettor Brent Carter. It will be held from 9-10 p.m. in the Stardust sports book and broadcast live on KDWN AM-720 in nine Western states and worldwide on kdwn.com.

* Joe Perry held on to his slim lead in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest with a 3-1-1 mark last weekend. Through four weeks, he is 15-13-2, which is worth 16 points since pushes count for a half-point. A contestant under the name "Brady B" is second with 15 points, followed by a group of four at 14.5. Selections for all the contestants, including consensus plays of all 411 entrants, are available in the Hilton SuperBook on Friday afternoon as well as on the internet at www.jimfeist.com/contests/hiltoncontest.aspx.

* "Mickey Eagle" went 5-0 to take over sole possession of the lead in the Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge. He has a record of 15-5. Tied for second with 14 points are "Continental Sports Service" and "Maxpesca.com," which is the website of Max Pescatori, an accomplished horseplayer who won the Summer Showdown handicapping tournament at the Reno Hilton in June 2002.

* "JRBuck" leads the Golden Nugget's Ultimate Football Challenge with 19 points after going 4-1 with a best-bet winner (which is worth 2 points in this contest) in a week in which none of the 95 contestants went 5-0. "El Loco IS" is in second with 18 points, followed by six contestants with 17.