DOES HOME ICE MATTER IN THE NHL PLAYOFFS?
One of the more enduring concepts in sports—be it fandom or betting—is that teams have a dramatic advantage when playing at home. Logically, there are plenty of reasons why this should be the case. Teams are playing in front of a supportive crowd that cheers everything they do right and boos for the opponent. Their familiar with the nuances of the venue and playing surface. They don’t need to travel and can sleep in their own bed at night. It’s pretty much an accepted truth that home ice/field/court advantage is a big deal in every sport.
But is it? Regular season baseball is the obvious example of home advantage being less significant than we’ve been led to believe. At least it’s not categorically an important factor—looking at the 2015 MLB standings most of the playoff teams have similar records at home as on the road. There are some exceptions like Toronto who won 53 games at home and just 40 on the road but they’re the exception. The New York Yankees won 45 games at home and 42 on the road. The Texas Rangers won 43 games at home and 45 on the road. Some teams won more at home than on the road but not as many as you’d think given how home field advantage has been mythologized over the years.
NHL hockey is superficially a game that would offer teams a significant home ice advantage. It’s a very emotionally intense game which suggests that a strong fan presence would be helpful. It has a similar ‘up and down’ game play as basketball—where home court advantage is huge—but with the added component of greater physicality.
THE REALITIES OF NHL HOME ICE ADVANTAGE
The 2015-2016 regular season schedule suggests otherwise. Looking at the teams that made the playoffs the biggest home/road disparity was the New York Rangers who had 8 more wins at home than on the road. No other team had more than a +6 win differential at home. Overall, the 16 playoff teams won an average of 3.18 more games at home than on the road. That does include the ‘Bizarro World’ San Jose Sharks who won 10 more games on the road than at home but even if they’re factored out playoff teams won just 4.08 more games at home than on the road.
It was less of a factor for the teams that didn’t make the playoffs. The team with the greatest home/road disparity in this group was Arizona who won 9 more games at home than on the road. This was more than negated by five teams that won more on the road than at home plus one that had exactly the same number of wins in both venues. Overall, the 14 non-playoff teams had an average of just 1.57 more wins at home than on the road. If you throw out the extremes—Arizona at +9 and Boston who had 8 more road wins than home wins the remaining 12 teams averaged 1.75 more wins at home than on the road.
It doesn’t seem like home ice is any more of a factor in the playoffs than it is in the regular season. At the time of this writing, we’re at the start of the second round in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Looking at the 8 first round series there were 47 total games played. Of these 21 home teams won, 26 road teams won. In only one of the eight series did the home team win more than the road team—in the Tampa Bay/Detroit series the home team won 4 of the 5 games played. Three series were 3-3 home/road and in the other four series the road team won more than the home team.
Linesmakers are starting to catch up to this at least to some extent. In Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars the home team (Dallas) was a -115 favorite. In Game Two, the road team (St. Louis) was a -115 chalk. There are other factors for this but it’s evident that linesmakers didn’t give Dallas a huge home ice advantage over the Blues.