Each year in the NHL there are times when teams are forced out of their home buildings and on to the road for extended road trips. Some of those occasions are annual – like in November when the Blackhawks are replaced by the circus and the Oilers make way for the Canadian rodeo championships. Others are caused by one time events – the World Junior hockey championships often forces the team from the host city out of town at Christmas time, and the Olympics in Vancouver led to an incredibly grueling road trip for the Canucks. Playing on the road is tough in the NHL at the best of times, but it can be especially taxing for a team to have to play several road games in a row. A long road trip – something like six games or more – can send a team off the rails, or it can help a team bond and learn how to play together better. Handicappers are obviously well served to be able to make an educated guess about which is more likely for a given team. Here are six questions that will help you do so:
How do they perform on the road? – This is an obvious starting point. Some teams perform well on the road, while others just aren’t nearly as good as they are at home. It’s rare that an extended road trip will make a team perform better than they normally do on the road, so looking back on road performance is a very powerful starting point for this evaluation. You want to look beyond just the road record here, too. How do they perform statistically on the road? Do they score less? Are their special teams less effective? Are they less effective defensively?
How were they performing right before the trip? – I’m not a huge believer in momentum, so it is very possible to put too much stock into how a team is performing before a trip. That being said, some factors of their play before they leave home is very telling. Has their recent play on the power play and penalty killing been better than their season average, or have they struggled in these key areas? Have they been playing with consistency, or has their effort been spotty? Have their best players been playing like their best players, or have they struggled to perform at a high level?
What’s the general state of the team? – This can encompass several different factors. Are they healthy, or are they missing key players or nursing significant injuries? Are they playing with passion or intensity, or do they seem to be in a bit of a funk? Have they been disciplined, or are they sloppy and inconsistent? Do they seem to be buying into what the coach has to say and what he is trying to accomplish?
Who do they play? – The schedule is always such an important factor in handicapping, and that’s especially the case here. A string of weaker opponents would obviously be favorable to a string of elite ones. Games that are well spaced out and travel that is logical and reasonable would be better than back to back games and nights spent sleeping in planes. Games against teams that they match up against would be favorable to teams that offer matchup challenges.
Will they be returning home between games? – The way the schedule shapes up can have a lot to do with how they succeed. If there is a break of a few days between games, or if the games are being played reasonably close to home, then the team may be able to return home to visit their families and perhaps practice on familiar ice. That can break up a road trip and not make it seem nearly as long. If the team is forced to play across the country, or if the schedule is too tight to return home at any point, the trip can seem like it never ends, and the impact on the team can be significant.
Will the public overreact? – There is nothing the betting public likes to do more than to overreact to a situation. If a team goes on a long road trip then the public is very likely to assume the worst – especially if the team isn’t playing great at the time. If you can be confident that the team isn’t likely to perform as badly as the public is assuming then you have a very nice opportunity for value, and that value could repeat itself game after game on the road swing.