For the Flyers, that issue has been road play. It's something that absolutely must improve for the team to make the playoffs and then advance beyond a single round if they do.
We'll delve shortly into what I think are some of the underlying reasons for why the Flyers have a stellar 13-2-4 home record and a less-than-mediocre 9-12-1 mark on the road. The quick answer is that it boils down to 200 foot play and giving their goalies a fair chance to make saves.
The Flyers have done that at home, with a 1.95 goals against average (best in the entire NHL). On the road, they have a 3.68 GAA (29th in a 31-team league).
What isn't so easy to figure out is WHY. It's the same players and the same coaching staff, after all.
While some would say it's a question of matchups, that's less of a factor in today's NHL than it was in the past. Nowadays, there are fewer situations where a home team automatically gets the last line change (such after an icing by the home team) and new rules that allow either team, in certain situations, to dictate whether an offensive zone draw will be in the left or right circle. As such, it's a little easier nowadays for the visiting team coach to get the matchups he wants to start a shift.
Even so, on a leaguewide basis, the home team wins about 55 percent of the time during the regular season. Even teams in the lower one-third of the league standings often can at least hover near or just above a .500 points percentage on home ice.
Interestingly enough, in recent years, home ice has NOT been nearly as big of a factor come playoff time as it once was.
Times have, indeed, changed. We talk about this often of how the game is changed but I will say this is well.: The crowds have also changed. Maybe it's because of the size of the buildings now that it's not as loud as the infamous Spectrum in Philly or the old Chicago stadium but there is no question that finding a groove on the road should not be as hard as it is.
My first two years in the NHL, I played in the Spectrum and one of the great terms that still went around the NHL at the time was the "Philly flu". Opponents despised -- some were even intimidated -- playing in Philadelphia. This was largely due to the raucous 17,000+ Flyers partisans who not only packed the building every night but were physically closer to the action and easier to hear at ice level. They were also -- and almost unanimously -- rabidly pro-Flyers.
The Flyers also had teams built for size and toughness in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Imagine Dave Brown, Behn Wilson, Daryl Stanley, Craig Berube and much of the other crew that continued the legacy of the Broad Street Bullies.
But the game itself isn't played that way anymore. It's a bygone era.
In and of itself, as a visiting player nowadays, one building and one crowd is very much like another. Some arenas have better atmospheres than others and, of course, some opponents are tougher than others.For the most part, though, the only major difference is the color of the majority of jerseys sported by fans in the crowd.
If the crowds are less of a factor than they used to be in an average game and there's less physical intimation walking into certain clubs' barns -- no more Broad Street Bullies or Big Bad Bruins -- why is it hard to win on the road for certain teams and particularly the current Flyers team?
Well, for one, the schedule stinks. I really can't say it any other way. There are way too many games in the NHL where one team is resting at home and they face a tired opponent who had to travel in for the game, quite often late at night after playing in another city the previous night. It's called the "fatigue factor," and it's very real because it adds up as teams travel to play for the third time in four nights, the fourth time in six nights or the fifth in eight.
It's flat out bad. In terms of the difficulty of schedule in terms of fatigue factor games where one side is rested and the other is potentially tired, the Flyers drew the short stick leaguewide this year. No team this season faces more such games (typically on the road) where they're at a disadvantage with fewer built-in fatigue-factor games working their advantage to balance them off than the Flyers.
Twice already this year, the Flyers have played back-to-back games with less than 24 hours of rest in between the games.The NHL's minimum turnaround between game starting times in 22 hours.
This latest road trip, for example, had the Flyers play immediately after the Christmas break with one morning skate to prepare. Then they faced off against San Jose for a 7:30 p.m. start on the West Coast (still 10:30 p.m. body clock time because league rule forbid team travel on Dec. 26).
The next day, after travel and little sleep, they had a mere 22-hour turnaround before opening faceoff in Anaheim. After a slow start, the Flyers won that game in overtime.
NHL rules prohibit teams from playing on three straight calendar days -- teams in the AHL do so several times a season, typically on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But the Flyers had a New Year's Eve game in Los Angeles and had to play for a third time in less than 96 hours.
Because the Flyers team had not had a bonafide practice -- a morning skate exists for a different purpose and is not as intensive -- since their arrival in San Jose, they had to use the morning of New Year's Day to practice in Las Angeles before leaving for Las Vegas to play their fourth game in less than six full nights.
Plain and simple, there's no way that that these conditions are conducive to maintaining the same sort of road record that one has at home. It's not an excuse. Every team deals with it at different junctures of the season. The very top clubs still find ways to keep their heads above water.
Although there are a lot of reasons why a team may struggle on the road it is nothing like it was in the past. The comments before games were always, "Hey, guys, let's take the crowd out of the game in the first 10 minutes." That was a simple goal of the road team was to try to silence and quiet the home team's crowd. That's rarely a fator anyomre.
Winning on the road in the regular season is a little bit different than playoff hockey. Winning on the road during the regular season requires a team to get in good groove that gives you a chance to win every night. Even when a team pulls off a big comeback win -- or at least salvages a point -- it drains vital energy, little by little.
When you play from behind too often, even if you get away with it for awhile, it's going to catch up to your team. The Flyers have had to chase way too many road games this season, and have given up too many crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
Even if you aren't trailing in games, having to overrely on your goalie to bail you out until you get going offensively can work once awhile. It's no formula for any sort of sustained success. On this current trip in particular, the main problem has not been the goaltending of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott. It's been poor play in front of them mixed in with perhaps one goal each game that the goalie might ordinarily save. Stellar goaltending is something every good team needs at times but it's a two-way street. Goalies need the team in front of them to pull their weight, too, or the scores will eventually get ugly no matter who is in net.
Things are a bit different in the playoffs. In recent years, the home-road winning percentages have flatted out. Part of this reason is that, within a playoff series, the schedule equalizes. You and your series opponent travel on the same days, travel the same distance, and you're both dealing with the same start times.
That's part of the equation but not all of it. In the playoffs, there is more of a hyper-focus, shift after shift, game after game and that focus is the exact same for both teams. However, there's often just a little more pressure on the home team. As a matter of fact, the "home ice advantage" of a Game 7, once very real, has become one of the most overrated things in hockey.
Look at teams that have gone through and got into the Stanley cup or deep playoff runs. Almost each and every one of them was a strong road team that spring. Also look at how rampant upsets have been in the playoffs recently, especially last year. Home ice was often no advantage at all.
When you go on the road to start a series, you are exactly focused on the task at hand: get a leas a split of the first two, and no worse than a split when the venue shifts to your building. Then it's one game per venue, back and forth.
Last year, the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. On the road, they went 10-3. At home, they were just 6-7. It was similar for their Cup Final opponent, the Boston Bruins. Boston went 8-3 on the road but 7-6 at home.
This past June, when the Blues had to go back to Boston for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, I asked Craig Berube about his outlook on having to win the postseason's final game on hostile territory.
"Makes no difference," Chief said. "We're as comfortable in their building as our own."
Of course, Berube and the Blues would have loved to celebrate on home ice. It would have made hockey's ultimate accomplishment just a tad sweeter to do it in front of the home fans who supported them all season. But in terms of fear factor of going on the road for a Game 7, there was none.
The current Flyers can learn a lesson from this. Weather the storm on the road in the second half of the regular season, keep on doing what they've been doing at home. Then, when the postseason rolls around, forget about venue and just go game to game because home ice advantage will disappear for both sides.