After the Vegas Golden Knights quickly fell behind in the opening minutes of Game 1 in the Western Conference championship series for the Clarence Campbell Trophy, I thought I was looking at the exact performance by the San Jose Sharks in the opener vs. the Knights in the previous round.
Turnovers in the defensive zone, dumb penalties, lost face-offs – no wonder Winnipeg leaped forward for a quick 3-0 lead after less than eight minutes of play.
Everyone believed Vegas held so many advantages – more days of rest, a shorter flight (Winnipeg is closer to Nevada than Nashville (by 370 miles), plenty of chances to scout – while the Jets needed to stay focused on the Predators in a long, rugged seven-game series, et al.
Indeed, the “white-out” conditions inside Bell MTS Place were difficult to overcome, never mind that Winnipeg mounted the best home record in the NHL this season with 32 victories (Vegas tied for third with 29 wins)
However, if you don’t believe regular season statistics are applicable to Stanley Cup play, let’s look deeper into the so-called home-ice advantage in postseason play.
In Round 1, the visiting team held a slight edge, 22-21; Round 2, it again leaned toward the guests, 14-10. Considering the home team is usually the favorite, it’s no wonder the sharps often wagered (almost blindly in some situations) on the clubs in white sweaters (the road team).
But the numbers do not apply across the board. Predictably, the sides that earned the best record at home in Cup play were the only ones to advance to hockey’s Final Four.
In the first two rounds, Vegas went 4-1 at T-Mobile Arena, nipping San Jose (3-2). By virtue of its Game 7 decision, Winnipeg was 4-2 (Nashville, 3-4). Tampa Bay glided to a league-best 5-1 (Boston, 3-3), while Washington and Pittsburgh were even at 3-3.
Note: The Knights’ lone loss was the double-overtime contest against the Sharks in Game 2, when VGK had a goal disallowed in the first overtime - slightly controversial.
Thus, home ice really does mean something… if you can take advantage of it.
The Knights have done that all season, both regular season and playoffs – despite the “Vegas Flu” or not – so dropping Game 1 in Manitoba may not be such a great hurdle to overcome (Game 2 was played after press time). Besides, they were the better side in the second period, while the third period was even in the Jets’ 4-2 decision, meaning Vegas out-scored the Jets over the final 52 minutes.
It’s one of the reasons NHL governors elected to switch to a four-division format, highlighted with more intra-divisional postseason play, giving the higher seeds (based on opponent familiarity) a better chance (despite President’s Trophy winner Nashville happened to be the one division titleist not to advance).
For the Golden Knights to reach the Stanley Cup Final – I can’t believe this remains a real possibility – they must win at least one (probably two) in Winnipeg.
A final footnote: In Round 1, the edge for the visitors was greatly exaggerated thanks to the Atlantic Division, where home teams went an impossible-to-believe 2-10, including 0-3 by both Philadelphia and Columbus – that was a major money-maker.
The three remaining divisions were a composite 19-12 at home, so be careful. Many “betting stats” sound good, yet may not be actually true.
The Vegas-Winnipeg match-up is the first conference final to pair first-time entrants since 2003, when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim swept the Minnesota Wild.
Obviously, it’s Vegas’ first trip, while neither Winnipeg NHL franchise – the first, which is now the Phoenix Coyotes, and the current “Jets 2.0” franchise that relocated from Atlanta – had ever won a single postseason game, never mind a series.
In the battle for the Prince of Wales Trophy, the Capitals are off to a 2-0 start but must do better at home or else Tampa Bay will re-gain the advantage after blowing Game 1 at home vs. Boston before sweeping the next four games).
Pro handicappers hate it when I mention the “emotional” angle, which some people may use in collegiate sports, but rarely among the pros. But look at the results of recent key match-ups.
The Boston Bruins took out Toronto in Game 7, then promptly carried the wave of emotion to down Tampa Bay in the Bees’ next contest. Then the Washington Capitals finally exorcised their personal Durango Demons to eliminate Pittsburgh, then continued the rush into a Game 1 win against Tampa Bay.
But when the Caps also bolted the Lightning in Game 2, I was surprised as much as the sharps who all went against Washington. So I took a look at the math.
Despite Tampa Bay finishing with 113 points (eight more than the Caps), the Lightning did have a significantly easier schedule.
Both played the West on even terms, then played three rounds of intra-conference contests. However, Tampa met the bottom teams of the Atlantic Division one extra time, while the Caps did the same against the Atlantic – a division far superior among the bottom five.
The Caps also captured the head-to-head series in points earned, 5-to-4, out-scoring the Bolts, 13-11.
Sure, this is only D.C.’s third trip to the conference final, while it’s trip No. 3 for Tampa over the past four seasons.
But that’s history; it could be that simple in stating Washington may actually be the better side, so I am changing my betting opinion to Cap City.