Why NHL teams enjoy home ice advantage — even without fans

Unlike most other sports, hockey has a built-in home advantage that many casual fans may not know about. And no, we’re not referring to the fact the player from the visiting team is required to place his stick on the ice first when setting up for the faceoff.

Matchups are the real advantage, and the reason why — even without fans — we won’t see home-ice advantage disappear in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

During a stoppage in play, the final line change is given to the home team after the visiting team sends its players out onto the ice. This rule gives the coach of the home team more control and allows him to strategically deploy his players, either in a defensive posture or in an effort to create more offense.

Analyzing these situations, though, requires data analysis skills that the average sports bettor likely does not possess. Hockey Graphs writer Meghan Hall has these skills, and she was kind enough to lend some of her findings to us. And, as logic would dictate, the home team does much better when they have the last line change.

According to Hall’s research, about 38 percent of 5-on-5 play involves a line matchup orchestrated by the home team. The rest of the time, lines are created on the fly.

Bo Horvat of the Canucks and Mark Scheifele of the Jets faceoff in an exhibition game on July 29, 2020.
Bo Horvat of the Canucks and Mark Scheifele of the Jets faceoff in an exhibition game on July 29, 2020.Getty Images

Upon isolating the two situations from one another, Hall found that both the home and the away team do a little better (in terms of shot generation) when the matchups aren’t dictated by the home coach. On top of that, the home and away teams generated roughly the same number of shots when players were subbed in and out during continuous play. In other words, neither team had an edge.

However, when the matchups were controlled, the home team generated almost six more shot attempts per 60 minutes than the away team. Whether the home team was trying to generate shots or suppress them, the same pattern held true: The home team receives a boost when they have the last change during the time the matched-up players were on the ice.

From a betting perspective, we’ll have to estimate just how much of a boost a team will receive from having last change. I’ve estimated that the impact of last change is around 1.5 percent in each direction. Therefore, in a game between two evenly matched teams, I would expect the home team to win approximately 51.5 percent of the time.

This translates to a fair line of -106 for the home team and +106 (48.5 percent) for the away team. Having home-ice advantage obviously won’t always result in a win, and some teams will feel its effect more than others, but hockey is a game that is often decided by the smallest of margins — so bettors shouldn’t dismiss it.