17 May 2009

Home Ice Advantage - Conclusions

In my last post, I explained my preliminary guesses of what we would see in the data collected by this spreadsheet.  First, I expected to see the home-ice winning percentage (HIW%) peak in the first round, due to home teams having more advantageous matchups, and that the HIW% would go down as the playoffs moved on.  Secondly, I expected the Eastern Conference to have a higher HIW% than the West, in large part because of the difference in styles between the conferences.  I anticipated that the more conservative, defense-oriented style of the Western Conference would lead to more upsets, as its easier to beat a better team in a 1-0 or 2-1 game, than it is when you get into a shoot out.  

Well, I was right on the decreasing HIW% through the Conference portions of the playoffs.  That one was pretty easy though.  I was completely wrong on the conference HIW%'s though.  The Eastern Conference HIW%'s were pretty dismal though, dropping by round from 57.7% in the quarterfinals to 46.6% in the Cup finals.  I can only come up with a couple of explanations for the unexpected Eastern HIW%'s.  

The first obvious explanation is that in the West, teams travel much further.  Every Eastern team plays in the Eastern Time Zone,  but the West plays across Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.  This creates jet lag, which may lead to worse performances for travelling teams.  Eastern teams do not have to deal with this, and so the visiting team doesn't enter the game at a disadvantage due to fatigue from all this travel and jet lag.  This may indicate that home ice advantage is not necessarily the product of something the home team or the home team's fans are doing, as much as it is a product of making the visiting team travel to you.  

Another explanation would be the differences in environment you see when you move between cities.  The Western conference has a much wider variance in terms of climate and environment that teams must go through.  As a personal experience, having moved from the flatlands of Michigan to Denver, CO, I can definitely attest to the effect of higher altitudes on someone who isn't used to it.  Of course, a professional athlete is in much better shape than myself, but some effect has to exist there.  Moving across greater climate differences may also be a part of this effect, at least for a couple of teams like the Avalanche.  

Another possible explanation that I can think of, but I'm not sure I believe in, would have to do with the West's focus on defense-oriented hockey in conjunction with getting the last line change at home.  The idea would be that when you're talking offensive-oriented hockey, matchups become somewhat less important, meaning that having the last change on home ice would be less important.  If you're playing a defensively conservative style, having the last change may be more important to help you effectively shut down the opponent, meaning home ice becomes more important.  I'm not sure how much I believe this, but I can see how it might have some sort of effect.  

One possible conclusion for the SCF HIW% data in particular is that because the East does not have as high of a HIW%, more upsets are occuring, allowing lesser teams to occasionally overcome better ones.  If this is allowing lesser teams into the Cup Finals than the West allows, then we are simply seeing the result of a more effective "weeding out" of weaker teams in the West over the East, creating a Stanley Cup Final where the Western representative is stronger than the team that managed to sneak through a less demanding East.  However, this would lead me to expect the West to have won more Cups over this time period than they actually have.  

These conclusions seem to point to the West as being the stronger conference, in large part because the Western teams have extra obstacles to overcome, making the gauntlet they face to reach the Stanley Cup a bit harder.  More analysis, particularly on a team-by-team and series-by-series basis, could probably confirm some of these conclusions, or at least support some of them.  Perhaps I'll take a look at that sometime in the future.  I'm definitely open to other ideas and arguments about any of this information, so feel free to pile on in the comments.  

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