Why Can't the Detroit Red Wings Win at Home?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 20, 2013

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 19: A Detroit Red Wings fan bangs on the glass after her team scores a goal during an NHL game against the Calgary Flames at Joe Louis Arena on December 19, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Detroit wrapped up a four-game homestand with a contest against the Calgary Flames. It was an important tilt, despite the Flames playing in a different conference and that team’s status as a bottom-feeder (27th in the NHL, a lone regulation win in December entering the game), because of the Red Wings' well-publicized struggles at home.

Detroit came out flying, out-shooting Calgary 15-6 in the first period and 38-22 over the course of the game, and came away with a narrow 3-2 decision that required overtime. That victory put a halt to a five-game home losing streak and raised the team’s overall record at Joe Louis Arena to a miserable 6-9-6.

That lousy home run stands in sharp contrast to the Red Wings' road dominance. The club has gone 10-3-3 as the visiting team, which is the only reason it’s still in a playoff position.

But why are the Red Wings so much better away from Detroit?

Before we begin, let’s dismiss the unthinking responses. This isn’t a case of the team trying to be too fancy at home, or being demoralized by low turnouts or anything like that. Those are rationalizations, people reaching for conclusions to explain an unresolved question, and they are as silly as the idea of the Earth being held up by a big turtle.

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 26: Head coach Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings (C) talks to his team on a time-out as Associate coach Tom Renney (R) and Assistant coach Bill Peters (L) listen during an NHL game against the New York Rangers at Joe Louis Arena
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

This is basically the same team and coaching staff that had a better record at home a year ago. It’s basically the same team and coaching staff that went 31-7-3 at home and 17-21-3 on the road in 2011-12. So while some quick psychological hand-waving might seem like a solution, it requires a bunch of awfully good, veteran hockey coaches and players to have forgotten a whole bunch of what they’ve learned over the years about how to play the game and to have turned basically overnight into flustered bookworms trying to talk to a pretty girl at their eighth-grade dance.

That’s not what happened. What did? Let’s look at the numbers. First, some key statistics at five-on-five:

2013-14 Detroit Red Wings, five-on-five

Well, that’s a big chunk of it right there. The shooting-percentage gap, which is small enough and over a short enough sample to be explained by nothing more complex than random variance, means that Detroit has been 25 percent more likely to score on any given shot on the road than its is at home. The save-percentage gap, which is explainable the same way, means opponents have been more than 20 percent more likely to score on any given shot they take.

That kind of gap in shooting and save percentage is easily large enough to overwhelm something the Red Wings firmly control: their shot differential. Detroit is actually better at this at home than it is on the road (and it isn’t a score effects thing, because this trend is replicated in score-close situations).

And just to go back to our primitive rationalizations, if Detroit was guilty of being "too fancy" at home, we’d expect to see it taking fewer shots and have a higher shooting percentage as it tried to set up the perfect play. That isn’t happening; in fact, the opposite is.

What about special teams?

2013-14 Detroit Red Wings, five-on-four
2013-14 Detroit Red Wings, four-on-five

What we see is essentially a saw-off. Detroit gets a bit more power-play time than penalty-killing time at home, which makes sense given that the number of penalties taken tends to track pretty closely to shot metrics (in other words, the team that carries the play draws more penalties). On the road, that trend is reversed, which again fits with our shot numbers five-on-five.

The special teams have been somewhat more effective in terms of shot generation/suppression on the road, but we’re talking about less than two hours of total ice time, so it would likely be a mistake to read too much into it.  

In any case, the goals are virtually a saw-off both at home and on the road, which means that the Red Wings' results are being driven by the team’s five-on-five play. At home, that play is characterized by a decent shot advantage and terrible percentages; on the road by a decent shot disadvantage and great percentages.

The smart money is on Detroit improving at home and declining on the road the rest of the way, as the percentages regress to the mean in both cases.