Home-ice disadvantage? Why road teams have been winning more
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, there’s a common refrain spouted by NHL players: There’s nothing like playing at home.
“We won a lot of hockey games at home and we’re real comfortable in this building,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said before the Western Conference finals began. “We play with confidence in here.”
When the series shifted back to Vegas for Game 3, Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland said: “It’s huge. We have a great atmosphere here at T-Mobile with all the fans. We got to feed off that.”
Or, as Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller said: “Playing on your home ice is a big, big thing in the playoffs, I think.”
There’s only one problem, and perhaps Miller is right in his trepidation: Home-ice advantage isn’t really an advantage this year.
Entering Thursday, home teams are 34-39 in these playoffs. That win percentage of .466 would be the second-worst win percentage in the post-1967 expansion era. (In 2012, home teams went 39-47, which is .453). The Golden Knights, for the record, have the best home mark, at 6-1.
While scoring at home is up — home teams are averaging 3.03 goals per game, the highest rate since 1996 — there have been 28 games where home teams have given up four or more goals. That only happened 17 times in all of last year’s playoffs.
And when the game is close, home teams just aren’t closing it out. Hosts are 7-16 in one-goal games this postseason. The last postseason to have single-digit such wins was 1981, when there were nine. Any theories why?
“No idea. None. I really don’t,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “It may well be parity more than anything else. There used to be a huge matchup advantage. Maybe it’s the structure — I haven’t done the math — of the playoff format where you’re getting pretty powerful teams lining up against each other early. No, other than the fact that the kids that come into the game now have become used to big stages, big performances, loud buildings at a younger age; maybe it doesn’t faze them. That’s the best I got.”
That Maurice doesn’t believe there is a big matchup advantage anymore is something to examine; the option for last change is tactically home ice’s only advantage. Other commonly cited home-ice advantage factors range from the crowd’s trolling of opponents, such as Winnipegians yelling “We want Subban!” to Marc-Andre Fleury, to the benefits of sleeping in one’s own bed.
Interestingly, in Winnipeg’s second-round series against the Nashville Predators — in which home teams won just twice — there wasn’t a ton of line maneuvering.
“I thought in the Nashville series, [Nashville coach Peter Laviolette and I] both kind of agreed about 10 minutes into the game that we were both fine with the matchup,” Maurice said. “Hence, we alternated.”
Retired winger Martin St. Louis chimed in his opinion on Twitter:
My opinion- I use to love playing on the road because most of my coaches wouldn’t worry about matching lines because they didn’t have the last change-I always felt I played more on the road. Checkers on the road, chess at home! I like both but checkers is more fun! @NHL https://t.co/sARDNByDlp
— Martin St.Louis (@mstlouis_26) May 16, 2018
As the teams dwindle down, Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot thinks it matters less.
“At this point in the playoffs, anyone can play against anybody,” Chiarot said. “It’s the four best teams in the league, so everyone is confident in their depth and who they have out there. So matchups and last change don’t matter as much.”
Chiarot was aware of the stats regarding home team’s losing records this postseason and was flabbergasted by it.
“It’s crazy, and honestly, I have no idea why it’s like that,” he said.
The Jets’ second-round series against the Predators saw a hyped-up atmosphere in both teams’ arenas.
“Especially in the Nashville series we played, those are two of the craziest, loudest rinks,” Chiarot said before Game 3 in Vegas. “I know when I go to somebody else’s rink, and it’s a loud rink like Nashville, you’re more tense and more focused and sharp. You make the quicker or simpler play, as opposed to when you’re more looser and relaxed and sometimes you hold onto it for an extra second.”
More than 2,000 miles away in Tampa, Lightning forward Alex Killorn offered something similar.
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“I think once you’re on the road you tend to keep things more simple,” Killorn said. “It’s just a more simple hockey game. You don’t want to force things, tend it keep it simple early in the game and there are certain things that you just don’t know — there’s reasons why you play better on the road.”
For Lightning coach Jon Cooper, it’s all about the bigger picture — or rather, the chance to get the last lick.
“Home-ice advantage is Game 7, that’s what it is for me,” Cooper said. “If you’re going to advance in the playoffs you have to win on the road at some point. To me it’s all about you get to play four games where you get the last change, but ultimately it comes down to Game 7. Other than that, I don’t think it matters where you play the games at any other time. It can go 3-3 and it all ends up being Game 7.”
Home teams are 100-71 in Game 7s. Naturally, this season, in the two Game 7 scenarios thus far — Boston versus Toronto in Round 1 and Nashville versus Winnipeg in Round 2 — home teams are 1-1.
Senior writer Greg Wyshynski contributed to this report.