You would think that the home ice and crowd would be an enormous advantage wouldn’t you?
Why do so many teams struggle on home ice?
I have a few thoughts on this subject as we prepare for the 2008-09 NHL regular season.
Last season in the Eastern Conference, Carolina was the only team that DID NOT make the playoffs with more points than the eighth-place Boston Bruins on home ice. The Hurricanes had an excellent 24-13-4 record on home ice, good for 52 points. They finished one game below .500 on the road to miss the playoffs by just two points.
In the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers had 47 points on home ice, going 23-17-1, and missing the postseason (along with the Blackhawks) by only three points. Nashville snuck into the eighth spot with three more points on home ice than the Oilers.
You might think the power play at home would be a huge factor, right? It didn’t work out quite that way as only 10 of the 16 playoff teams ended the regularseason in the Top 16. New Jersey and Calgary were ranked 28th and 29th overall in PP % on home ice, yet both made the playoffs.
Tampa Bay was fourth and Los Angeles was fifth overall in home PP % , yet neither were close to making the postseason and, in fact, picked first and second overall in this year’s draft.
Penalty killing at home saw the Bruins dead last at only 74.7%, yet they finished eighth and got in. Washington was 25th and Pittsburgh was 27th overall.
Clearly gone are the days of an intimate home building with crowds standing above you and ice dimensions suited to your team’s style of play. Every building is eerily similar, so the only advantage a team has is how many fans are in their building and how supportive they are.
Here are my keys to having a home-ice advantage.
1) Goaltending early in games. If your goalie gives up a soft, momentum-deflating goal early in a hockey game, especially in a non-traditional hockey market, the fans really get frustrated and the players feel it. Your goalie has to show everyone he has the presence to lead, especially early.
2) Every team has to have a line that bangs and crashes and gets pucks in deep, forechecks hard and energizes the bench and the crowd. The visiting team has to come into your rink knowing that they have to survive the first 10 minutes of the game, if they want to have a chance. The home team has to have players that are relentless on the puck and keep the energy high.
3) The “D” has to have the confidence to close gaps. There is nothing like seeing a road team easily skate through the neutral zone, gain the blueline untouched, and score an easy goal on your home ice. That is as deflating as any one thing. When the forwards hustle back and the “D” are standing up and playing physically, then the fans and the bench and the momentum from the home side can take any hope away from a team on the road trying to win in your building.
There is no question that athletes have large egos and love the fans and the noise and the adulation both on and off the ice. Having a jam packed home building can only help out every player. There is nothing like having the pressure and the expectations from your own crowd as they will push you through the tough times in a game.
That being said, not every building is full, so you have to find a way to get it done. The points I made earlier are the keys to getting off to a great start and maintaining that momentum to win hockey games on home ice and getting you team into the postseason.