04/15/2010 12:00AM

Upset alerts all over NHL playoffs


LAS VEGAS - March Madness is behind us, but there is still plenty of action here in the sports books. If anything, it seems even busier, with the start of the NHL and NBA playoffs, baseball season in full swing, and football - and I'm not talking about the arena hybrid - about to take over the betting boards.

* The NHL playoffs started Wednesday night with the Washington Capitals as a lukewarm 4-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup, according to the odds at the Las Vegas Hilton. The San Jose Sharks are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but it's the Chicago Blackhawks who are the 9-2 second choice to win the Cup; the Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins are 5-1.

It is a pretty wide-open playoffs, and that point was driven home Wednesday night, when the underdogs won all four games outright. The defending champion Penguins, led by Canadian Olympic hero Sidney Crosby, lost to the Ottawa Senators, 5-4. The lower-numbered seed, with home-ice advantage, is usually the series favorite, but there is one exception this year - the Detroit Red Wings, the No. 5 seed in the West, who are a -175 series favorite over the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes skated to a 3-2 upset in the opener. Expect to see a lot more upsets during the playoffs.

* The NBA regular season ended Wednesday night, and the playoffs start this weekend with four games Saturday and four games Sunday. Unlike the NHL, there are clear favorites in each conference. The Hilton has the Cleveland Cavaliers 1-3 to win the East and the Los Angeles Lakers 10-19 (just under 1-2) to win the West. The Cavaliers are 3-2 to win the championship, and the Lakers are 7-4; there is a big dropoff to the third choice, the Orlando Magic, who are at 6-1, and the Denver Nuggets are next at 12-1.

The Cavs have the edge not only because they have secured home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but because they have the perceived easier route to the finals. That is borne out in the series odds. The Cavaliers are -3000 (risk $30 for every $1 you want to win) vs. the Chicago Bulls in the first round, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants; the Lakers are -950 (risk $9.50 for every $1 you want to win) vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. In Saturday's opener, the Cavs are

11 1/2-point favorites vs. the Bulls, the Lakers are -9 1/2.

The Magic are a 10 1/2-point favorite over the Charlotte Bobcats, with a money line of -1100. Even though the top seeds should prevail in their series, taking some underdogs in individual games could still be profitable. I'll start with the Bulls +11.5 vs. Cavaliers on Saturday and the Thunder +9.5 vs. Lakers as well as the Spurs +5.5 vs. the Mavericks on Sunday.

* The NFL will release its 2010 regular-season schedule Tuesday, April 20, on the NFL Network and NFL.com. Expect to start seeing Week 1 betting lines within 24 hours of the announcement. Books will also be scrambling to put up over/under season win totals and other prop bets to feed to public's hunger for betting anything NFL. On Thursday, the Hilton had the Indianapolis Colts as the 6-1 favorite to win the Super Bowl; the San Diego Chargers were 8-1, and the New Orleans Saints, the defending champions, were 9-1.

Derby Day handicapping tourney

There is a new name on the horse racing tournament calendar. The Stratosphere Derby Day Tournament made its debut May 1 at the iconic tower on the north end of the Strip.

It is being run by Ed Malinowski, Stratosphere's race and sports book director, and is sponsored by Horseplayer Magazine, published by Tom Quigley.

There is no entry fee, but bettors must have a $1,000 live bankroll (with a $500 non-refundable deposit due at signup). Players will then wager $100 on 10 races using the win, place, show, exacta, and trifecta pools from the contest tracks of Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Golden Gate Fields, and Hollywood Park. The only mandatory race on the day is the Kentucky Derby. Players keep all real-money earnings, and there will be cash prizes of $12,000 for first place, $5,000 for second, and $3,000 for third.

"We have a relationship with Del Mar, and a lot of people visit us from there, and Quigley was one of those people at our Derby party last year," Malinowski said. "We got to talking, and I told him we were interested in doing some tournaments. He knows tournament players and suggested the live-money format."

Horseplayer Magazine also sponsored a Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship qualifying tournament with a live-money format at Xpressbet.com two weeks ago.

Like the Hilton, the contest is limited to the first 200 entrants. Call 800-998-6937 to sign up for the contest and secure room rates of $75 per night for two nights or $39 per night for five nights. All contestants are given entry into the Strat's VIP party in the Theatre of the Stars showroom, where all the races will be shown on 8-foot-by-12-foot screens, as well as food and beverages. Malinowski said the room will be open to contest players at 7 a.m. with the early post times on Derby Day; it will be open to other VIP guests at

9 a.m.

* The Pick the Ponies at the Las Vegas Hilton is April 28-30. The entry fee is $500, and they cap the field at 200 so everyone can sit in the racebook. As of noon Thursday, there were only five spots available. Call 702-732-5905 to see if there are any openings remaining.