2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: What to Make of First Round Road Dominance?
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Much has been made of the success teams are having on the road in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Through Monday night's actions, road teams are 28-16, earning three more wins in every 11 games than home teams. Hosts are over .500 in just one series (3-2 in the New Jersey-Florida series), with only one other series being even (3-3 for Philadelphia-Pittsburgh).
The Detroit Red Wings had the best home winning percentage in the NHL (same number of points, but one more win than St. Louis) and set a record for consecutive home victories.
They lost both of their home games to the Nashville Predators. Their rival Chicago Blackhawks lost all three times at the United Center.
The home team in hockey gets to set last for the faceoff and match the line it wants against the one the road team chooses. Personnel can be tailored to the environment.
The slow-footed Dallas Stars of the late 90s took advantage of the shallow pond that formed atop the ice in the spring, neutralizing opposing speed.
The Edmonton Oilers have long favoured fast players because they have the best ice in the NHL.
Detroit stocks its blue line with guys who can fire pucks from the point off the boards.
So what has happened? Is this a statistical anomaly?
In the past two seasons, both conferences sported losing records for the home teams in the first round.
How will home teams fare in the 2012 NHL playoffs?
That 144-game, nearly three-year sample is large enough and long enough to at least hint to a trend. It is reinforced by the fact that nine of the past dozen first rounds have favoured road teams.
But since the total record of those teams in the past two years was a fairly level 47-53, this year's first round represents at least a spike. Furthermore, the Western Conference teams were 54-37 in the first four seasons after the lockout, so this year's 6-15 record could certainly be called an anomaly there.
It should also be noted that with each passing round, home ice becomes more important.
In the 2010 and 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the road team is a combined 23-23 in the second round, 6-15 (.286) in the third and 2-11 (.154) during the finals. Since the lockout, they are 135-143 (.486) in the first round, 54-76 (.415) in the second, 26-39 (.400) in the third and 9-29 (.237) in the finals.
It also should be noted that in the 2011-12 regular season, teams averaged under nine more points at home than on the road. That is under a 10 percent margin over their road play despite the more brutal travel that leaves over a third of all teams' road contests on the second night of back-to-back games.
Going from that disadvantage to the playoffs has to be like training in the thin air of Denver to run at sea level.
How do you think you will remember this playoffs?
The NHL is more about matchups. The better team wins on either rink. Coaches make adjustments, so the two teams often split the first two on the road and at home.
Line matchups that supposedly favour the home team are overrated. Either coach should be putting the line best suiting the situation out anyway—defensive in one's own end, offensive in the attacking zone, fresh lines over tired, etc.
You dictate the game. And you do not have the pressure.
Uniformity of the rinks has also been noted. Certainly that is a factor compared to times when they could actually vary in size. But teams can affect how active the boards are or vary the speed of the ice surface to a minor degree, adjusting their play to maximize the conditions as noted above.
Basketball courts do not even have those options, and no home teams enjoy a greater advantage at home in the playoffs than NBA teams.
I suspect this season's first round is the tipping point. Teams have to stop taking home ice for granted and work harder to defend it.
Adjustments will be made for enough teams to return to previous coin-flip odds of winning at home in the first round. Having that extra game in the friendly confines will continue to mean more in successive rounds.
The road team success will be filed in our memories of this April along with the dirty hits, competitive series and new faces advancing.
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