Inside the friendly confines of Joe Louis Arena, the Detroit Red Wings are borderline unstoppable. The only team with a better record than the Red Wings at home is the St. Louis Blues, who are currently on pace to win the Presidents’ Trophy. The Red Wings have racked up 28 wins at home, with only 5 regulation losses. They lead the league in goals for and are second in goals against at home, with a whopping plus-59 goal differential at home.
Their dominance at home is so total that they set an NHL record with 23-straight home wins, not losing once from November 3rd, 2011 to February 23rd, 2012. Home cooking has been very, very good to the Red Wings.
Away from Detroit, however, is when things get dicey. The Red Wings are below .500 on the road and that might mean bad news come playoff time.
On the road, the Red Wings are 16-20-2, allowing the 8th most goals against on the road for a goal differential of minus-19. They’ve lost 5 straight on the road, which has dropped them out of the top-4 in the Western Conference and, most importantly, home ice advantage in the playoffs. With their road record, you can be sure they want to get home ice advantage for at least the first round. Fortunately for them, 6 of their final 9 games are at home, so they may be able to push past the Nashville Predators for 4th in the West.
They’re not alone in their road woes: the Chicago Blackhawks have been similarly terrible away from the United Center, but are still securely in the playoff picture thanks to their solid home record. The Blackhawks are 15-18-3 on the road and have a minus-21 road goal differential compared to plus-30 at home. The difference is not quite as drastic as that of the Red Wings’, but it is still significant. Only 4 of their remaining 9 games are at home, with a final game against Detroit that could potentially decide home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
In addition to the Blackhawks and Red Wings who are comfortably in the playoff picture, there are a number of fringe teams with woeful road records. The Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, and Winnipeg Jets are all below .500 on the road. The San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers aren’t much better, sitting barely above .500. Depending on how the remainder of the season plays out, the Panthers could be the first division winner with a below .500 road record since the 2010 Vancouver Canucks.
Why does this matter? Simply put, unless a team somehow manages to get home ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs, a team needs to win on the road in order to win the Stanley Cup. Road games are also a measuring stick: how you play on the road frequently speaks to the quality of your teams’ systems, game plans, and organization, as well as such intangible qualities as heart and determination.
If you can win without your fans in the stands, that speaks to the mental strength of your team. The Winnipeg Jets appear to have been significantly buoyed by the atmosphere in their home arena, going 23-11-4 in the MTS Centre and 11-19-4 on the road. The jubilant Jets fans appear to have had a significant impact on the Jets’ home record; unfortunately, 7 of their remaining 10 games are on the road. The Jets will need to win on the road just to make the playoffs, let alone succeed once the second season starts.
Since the lockout, 17 teams have made the playoffs with road records at or below .500. Of those teams, 12 lost in the first round. In 2008-09 alone, 5 teams with road records at or below .500 made the playoffs and all 5 lost in the first round, with three of them getting swept in 4 games. That’s 70.6% of teams with a poor road record that lost in the first round, compared to 45.6% with a road record above .500. Three more of those 17 teams made it to the second round before bowing out.
The remaining two teams that made it past the second round are the 2006 Anaheim Ducks and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers. The 2006 Ducks rode some unbelievable goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov to make it to the Western Conference Finals, where they were summarily trounced in 5 games by the Edmonton Oilers.
The 2010 Flyers, on the other hand, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but it took an epic collapse by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semi-Final and home-ice advantage against the 8th-place Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final in order for this to occur. It’s worth noting that the Flyers lost all three away games in the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
It should be fairly clear why having a poor road record is a red flag for playoff teams. The best comparables to this season’s Red Wings and Blackhawks in terms of regular season home and away records are the 2006 Predators and Flames, 2007 Flames, and the 2010 Canucks. Of those four, only the Canucks made it past the first round, losing in 6 games in the Western Conference Semi-Final.
This has to be a worry for these two teams. Even the league-leading Blues should be a bit concerned: their road record is 17-15-4 and with 5 of their remaining 9 games coming on the road, they could still finish sub-.500 away from the Scottrade Center. If they somehow manage to win the Presidents’ Trophy with a losing record on the road, I believe they will be the first team in the history of the NHL to do so. I’m sure they would much rather establish a winning trend on the road then set a dubious record.