Before the 2020-21 National Hockey League schedule had even opened, I was already planning to write about how the circumstances of this most unusual season meant had taken away much of the edge normally enjoyed by the home side.
For one, road teams would have an easier time playing in an empty arena as opposed to being surrounded by hostile fans by the thousands.
There was also the factor of reduced travel: with a schedule resembling that of Major League Baseball, visiting teams can now set up shop in town for multiple days at a time, instead of the usual jet-lag-inducing itinerary of waking up in a different city every morning.
And finally, hard data from other sports showed the home side won less often when competing within this unprecedented environment. In the NBA, for example, teams are barely winning more than they lose (162-152 through Feb. 3) on their home courts.
So it seemed like a pretty sound theory.
And in just three weeks, it’s been blown to bits.
Percentage Jumps From Last Season
Through games of Feb. 3, home teams this season have a record of 91-41-17 for a point percentage (P%) of .668, compared to a 58-66-25 record and .473 P% for their road-tripping rivals.
Last season, which ended early with the NHL’s 31 teams having each played between 68 and 71 games, the hosts were 577-367-138 for a P% of .597, with road clubs going 505-465-112 for a .518 P%.
Thus far in 2020-21, home teams are earning .071% more of the available points while visiting teams’ success rate has dropped .045 percent. Season over season, the gap in P% between home and road teams has grown by .116%. That equates to a difference of 6.5 points over a truncated 56-game schedule, or 9.5 points in a normal 82-game season.
With road points proving much harder to earn, finding a way to get results in enemy rinks could prove even more critical than usual; of the 16 teams (top four in each division) currently in a playoff spot, only the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are fourth in the East, have an away P% of less than .500. Of the 15 teams on the outside of the post-season picture, only Buffalo and New Jersey have a road P% better than .500.
Division leaders have been road warriors, going a combined .750 (12-4-4) away from home.
Of course, road success only makes a difference if teams don’t give back those points at home. Of the 16 teams within the top four of their respective divisions, seven are unbeaten at home, and only three – Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Edmonton – have more than one regulation loss in their barn.
Road Has Been Rough in Central Division
Interestingly, home ice advantage fluctuates wildly between divisions.
It is most pronounced in the Central, where teams are 25-6-4 (.771) at home and 10-17-8 (.400) on the road. The four teams currently in playoff position are a perfect 14-0-0 as hosts.
In both the East and West, visitors are earning half of all available road points (14-14-11 and 18-18-2), while home teams are 25-9-5 (.705) and 20-12-6 (.605), respectively.
And then there is the outlier up North which has the lowest home point percentage (.595), thanks toa combined 21-14-2 record. Meanwhile, the Canadian clubs are 16-17-4 as the visitors, and picking up points at a .580 rate if the cellar-dwelling Ottawa Senators and their 0-6-0 away record are removed from the equation. This despite the division having the largest distances for teams to travel.
Granted, the sample size is small. The San Jose Sharks, who are among several teams that have had multiple games postponed due to COVID-19 issues, won’t play their first game in the Shark Tank until Feb. 13. (From ‘San Jose Sharks Will Host the Vegas Golden Knights on February 13’, The Daily California Press, 2/1/21).
So we could certainly see the percentages start to normalize once schedules balance out and teams become more accustomed to the unprecedented challenges of going on the road in the middle of a global pandemic.
But, for the time being at least, it seems there really is no place like home.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.