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What does home ice really mean for the Penguins?

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The Penguins have earned home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the 2021 playoffs. How much is that likely to help?

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NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In a May interview, Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn told NHL.com that home ice doesn’t matter as much as it once did.

He’s not alone in believing that. Hockey analysts have been picking apart the idea of “home-ice advantage” for years. In the 2012 research paper “New Insights Involving the Home Team Advantage”, Tim B. Swartz and Adriano Arce describe how what was once a notable correlation between wins and location became steadily more scattered over the decades in both the NHL and NBA.

Swartz and Arce are not the only analysts to find that data doesn’t back up the generally-accepted understanding that teams are more successful when they play at home. FiveThirtyEight pointed out in 2017 that NHL home teams’ chances of postseason success are generally equal to that of road teams, and sometimes even lower; in 2012, NHL playoff teams compiled an overall losing record of 39-47 at home. Action Network noted in 2019 that although the four other major leagues see a slight increase in home advantage during the postseason, the NHL sees almost no difference in a team’s home win percentage between the regular season and playoffs.

In general, location provides a smaller advantage for NHL teams than it does in any other sport. But some teams still seem to prefer home ice.

According to Swartz and Arce, the Pittsburgh Penguins led the NHL with the highest regular-season win rate at home— they were one of the only teams to regularly and convincingly best the League average— from 1980 to 2012. (Notably, that span never included a Cup-clinching win at home.)

Since then, the Penguins have continued to boast one of the best home records in the League. From the 2013-14 to 2019-20 regular seasons, the Penguins went 184-26-71 at home (as opposed to 139-35-105 on the road).

The Pittsburgh home advantage is notable in the playoffs, as well. Here are the Penguins’ playoff results from 2014-2019, sorted by round (data courtesy of Stathead Hockey):

Penguins playoff success by round, 2014-2019

Round Games Win percentage at home Win percentage on the road
Round Games Win percentage at home Win percentage on the road
1 16 home, 15 away 0.5 0.6
2 13 home, 13 away 0.46 0.54
3 8 home, 6 away 0.38 0.5
4 6 home, 6 away 0.83 0.5

The location for the Penguins’ recent postseason games doesn’t seem to make much of a difference— that is, until you get to Round 4, where home contests are won at a much higher rate than road battles. In the 35 Stanley Cup Final games the Penguins have played in franchise history, their record is 9-9 on the road— as opposed to a dominant 13-4 at home.

Maybe this was partially a symptom of the teams’ varying success levels (teams are more likely to be successful in the final round because they had to be successful to get to the final round in the first place) and not a cause.

But that doesn’t explain why the final-round teams were more successful at home than on the road. And a new factor introduced to the NHL in 2020-21— the uncertainties of a global pandemic— may make that symptom more relevant to success than it’s ever been before.

On May 13, the MLB’s New York Yankees announced that eight vaccinated team members had tested positive for COVID-19, demonstrating to the NHL that even with mask restrictions and social-distancing mandates relaxing across America, teams will be forced to adhere to strict limitations. The handbook for travel rules in the 2020-21 season was already 13 pages long, and that was just for travel within each division. One imagines that cross-division travel, especially if Canadian teams get involved, will be even more cumbersome and stressful— and that could be the disadvantage that tips an evenly-balanced series one way or the other.

Hockey is in many ways a mental game, especially in the playoffs, when the schedule becomes a brutal slog, painful hits go unregulated and games stretch longer. If we accept the theory that COVID-19 makes this 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format more difficult and stressful than it has been in prior modern NHL playoffs, the Penguins’ ability to start their series at home in front of fans— and return to PPG Paints for potential Games 5 and 7— matters.

That, combined with their historical success, should help boost the Penguins’ confidence as the Islanders arrive in Pittsburgh for Game 1.