Playoff Primer Part 1/2 (Home Ice Advantage)

Welcome to Stanley Cup Playoffs Week!

Beginning on Saturday, August 1 at 12:00 PM EST, the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes kick off the insanity of this year’s COVID Olympics, also known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All games are being played at Rogers Place (Edmonton) and Scotiabank Place (Toronto), with Western teams playing at the former and Eastern teams at the latter. That means that only two teams will actually enjoy all the luxuries of “home ice advantage” – Toronto and Edmonton. The rules regarding home ice advantage will remain the same as any other season, with the higher seed afforded the benefits of “home ice advantage” in 4 games of the best-of-7 series (3 of the 5 in the first round).

These benefits include:
(1) Last change – The home team makes player substitutions after the visiting team between stoppages of play
(2) Faceoffs – The centre from the visiting team must put their stick on the ice first
(3) Rink familiarity

In a normal playoff year, the home team would also have the benefit of not having to travel, favourable crowd noise and potentially more favourable officiating (the jury is out on that one). Because this isn’t a normal NHL playoff, it means that we can isolate the effect of having last change and faceoff advantage from travel and the fan effect. This begs the question: just how much does home ice advantage matter in the playoffs compared to the regular season?

I put together a handy infographic that illustrates the winning% at home for just playoff teams in the regular season and during the playoffs. This data, courtesy of Hockey-Reference, unfortunately also includes regular season games against non-playoff opponents (a feature available on Basketball Reference, but not Hockey Reference). For obvious reasons, one should expect playoff teams to perform better at home during the regular season (with a weaker schedule) than during the playoffs (with a tougher schedule). Even with this asymmetrical schedule, it is fascinating that three seasons (2003-04, 2007-08 & 2012-13), playoff teams performed worse at home during the regular season than at home during the playoffs. It is also interesting that we observed road teams win more games than home teams during the 2011-12 and 2017-18 playoffs. Fun fact: 2017-18 was also the year with the highest home winning% of playoff teams in the regular season in the past 18 years. That’s right: the same season when playoff teams won over 66% of all games at home in the regular season, they only won 47.62% of games in the playoffs. Isn’t hockey beautiful?

With the expanded playoff field of 24 teams (up from 16) and a diminished “home ice advantage” effect this year, it should serve as an interesting natural experiment to say the least.

Part 2 of the Playoff Primer will investigate the relationship between regular season winning% and making a deep playoff run in the NHL, NBA and NFL. And of course: I’ll be making my playoff predictions.

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