As the old expression goes, a series doesn’t start until a road team loses.
Wait, that’s not it. Shouldn’t that be until a “home” team loses?
Well, it used to be, but that just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.
In the Eastern Conference Final, the Washington Capitals jumped out to a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning with two wins in Florida. When they returned home, where they are hypothetically supposed to have the greater advantage, they lost both Game 3 and Game 4 and now find themselves in a tied series.
This is not the first time this postseason the Caps have struggled at home. Washington is now only 3-5 at Capital One Arena in the playoffs, but 7-1 on the road.
Well, first it should be noted that this is a trend across the NHL and not just in Washington. Including the Caps’ loss at home on Thursday, the home team has gone only 34-39 in the postseason.
“It doesn’t matter this time of year if you’re home or away,” Tom Wilson said following Game 4. “Every game is huge. The emotion’s going to be there.”
Home ice does not seem to mean as much as it once did. Having said that, however, of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, the Caps are the only team with a losing record at home. So even if you establish that home ice is not a major factor, the Caps have still been the worst at home of the remaining teams.
You can talk about how there is less pressure on the road, how it can be better for a player to get away from the family during the playoffs and how teams can rally around an ‘us against the world’ mentality, but that is true every single year. That does not explain why they have had so much trouble this year in particular on home ice.
Let’s compare some of the stats to see if we can break down exactly where the problem is.
At home: 8 games played, 3.25 goals per game (26 total goals), 3.38 goals against per game (27 total goals), 3.88 penalties drawn per game, 25.8-percent power play, 3.75 penalties taken per game, 70.0-percent penalty kill.
On the road: 8 games played, 3.75 goals per game (30 total goals), 2.13 goals against per game (17 total goals), 3.13 penalties drawn per game, 32.0-percent power play, 3.38 penalties taken per game, 77.8-percent penalty kill.
The three most glaring stats that jump out are goals against per game, the power play and the penalty kill, all of which are dramatically better on the road.
With home playoff records being a topic of conversation across the NHL, former player Martin St. Louis made headlines with his recent take:
My opinion- I use to love playing on the road because most of my coaches wouldn't worry about matching lines because they didn't have the last change-I always felt I played more on the road. Checkers on the road, chess at home! I like both but checkers is more fun! @NHL https://t.co/sARDNByDlp— Martin St.Louis (@mstlouis_26) May 16, 2018
There may be something to that, but that does not explain the situation for Washington given their special teams success away from Capital One Arena. Line matching does not matter when it comes to the power play and the penalty kill.
As unsatisfying as it may be, the answer is that there is no clear answer for why the Caps have struggled at home. If there was, the team would fix it.
Of the five games they lost in Washington, they were the better team in Game 1 and Game 2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Braden Holtby did not start either of those games. They were the better team in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins for all but a five-minute stretch in which the Penguins scored three goals. And they were the better team in Game 4 on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 3 against the Lightning was Washington’s worst home game of the postseason, but, for the most part, the Caps have actually played pretty well on home ice. The results just have not been there.
Looking at each game, it would seem that their home record is more of an anomaly than anything else. Perhaps the real question is not why they have struggled at home, but why have they been so good on the road?
“We’ve put together some pretty darn good games at home that we just couldn’t find those little plays,” John Carlson said, “The big moments that we didn’t take advantage of the in certain situations and that’s why our record is what is as at home and away.”
If you are looking for solace, however, two of the final three games of the Eastern Conference Final will be played on the road and, should Washington advance to the Stanley Cup Final, the winner of the Western Conference will have home ice.
To win the series and the Stanley Cup from this point, the Caps will need to have more success on the road than at home. Based on how they have played, that is probably fine by them.
“That’s our focus next game on the road where we have had a lot of success,” Carlson said. “We believe in here.”
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