Just how critical is home ice advantage during the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Considering how hard teams have traditionally battled for the perceived edge, you would think home ice guaranteed success. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. In fact, some feel the home ice advantage is nice, but not necessary.
"I don't think home ice in the playoffs is as big in hockey as it is, say, in football where it's a one-game elimination," Philadelphia Flyers
winger Vaclav Prospal
told NHL.com. "In hockey, you steal one game on the road and the pressure automatically swings back to the team that had home ice."
In the 2005-06 postseason, home ice was rendered meaningless for the top four seeds in the Western Conference – each of which lost to lower-seeded clubs. In fact, the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers
would advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before dropping a seven-game series to the second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes
in the Cup Final.
"I think home ice is very important; no question," Hurricanes center Eric Staal
said. "Our fans were a big part of our winning the championship two years ago. To have that comfort level at home and having the crowd behind you is something every team would want. We didn't finish first overall in the conference, but didn't lose out and ended up with home ice throughout the playoffs and it played a big part in our success. Players want that extra game at home to have that chance to use the building and fans to your advantage."
, now a center with the Flyers, played a key role in the fourth-seeded Buffalo Sabres
' five-game elimination of top-seeded Ottawa in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2005-06.
"I think it goes both ways as sometimes you get that adrenaline rush from your home crowd but sometimes it's easier to play relaxed on the road," Briere said. "I think I'd still prefer to play in front of our fans in order to get that adrenaline rush when you need it. Either way, in order to be successful in the playoffs, you have to be able to win on the road; there's no secret about it."
The Senators actually returned the favor to the Sabres during last year's playoffs when, as the fourth seed, they eliminated top-seeded Buffalo in five games in the conference finals. Over the last 10 Stanley Cup Finals, either the first or second-seeded team from either conference has raised the Cup seven times. Detroit won the Cup twice as the third seed in 1997 and 1998 and the Devils took home the big trophy as the fourth seed in 2000.
This season, there's been no better road team in the regular season than the San Jose Sharks
, who established a franchise record 11-game winning streak at one point and, in the process, reeled off eight consecutive road victories. As strange as it may sound, the Sharks have more road victories than wins at home.
Sharks center Joe Thornton
said the team might be more focused on the road.
"Obviously, we have to win on the road in the playoffs and just being comfortable going on the road is a plus," Thornton said. "We have a great group of guys that like to hang out together. I think that definitely adds to our record. We enjoy going to dinner with each other. Having this record and feeling comfortable, going on the road, will definitely help us in the long run."
Rangers coach Tom Renney said home ice advantage will take on greater meaning if a series reaches a Game 6 or 7.
"I think this year home ice could play a big role and I'm glad we have had a good record at home in our division and our conference," Renney said. "You can see teams going seven games in most cases. It's just going to be that type of year. I don't think there is a clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference. It doesn't really matter which teams are in the final eight, they all have a shot. It's going to take some time, naturally, but I feel it's in a Game 7 where home ice could become a factor."
In some ways, Briere, who admitted he needs more than two playoff seasons before providing an honest answer, agrees.
"I look at the past couple of seasons that I had a chance to play in the playoffs with Buffalo and, I always go back to the season we reached the conference final against Carolina (in 2006) and lost Game 7 in their building," Briere said. "The fans were going nuts and it was very tough to play there. Would it have been different if the game were in our building? I really don't know, especially since we had so many injuries. But I can say that the Carolina fans certainly played a big part in getting their team all fired up."
I'd be lying if I said teams didn't like to play in front of their fans. But I don't think teams really care where they play. Every team gets up emotionally for it, and they block out the distraction of the fans on the road. - Bruce Boudreau
coach Bruce Boudreau
said overcoming the intimidation factor plays a key role in becoming road warriors.
"I'd be lying if I said teams didn't like to play in front of their fans," Boudreau said. "But I don't think teams really care where they play. Every team gets up emotionally for it, and they block out the distraction of the fans on the road. But I mean, if you had a preference, you'd like to play all your games at home, but that's not a choice. I certainly don't think it bothered Edmonton (in 2006). If you look around the League, there are more teams now than ever playing over .500 hockey on the road, so I don't think it has had as big an effect as in the past."
coach Guy Carbonneau
admits how difficult it has become to win in any city in today's parity-stricken game.
"If you're talking organization-wise, I think it's always important to be playing at home in front of your fans, especially in a seventh game," Carbonneau said. "But the parody today is unbelievable and it's really hard to win anywhere so it's more about preparation. For me, it's more about how prepared your team is and, after that, which team has the home ice advantage. Still, I'd much rather start at home than on the road."
Flyers goalie Martin Biron
thinks the luxury of home ice advantage has evolved over the years.
"I think home ice today has a lot more to do with matchups and trying to get the right people against the right lines," Biron said. "I think everyone feels more comfortable since travel is a lot better than it used to be. Everyone is familiar with the other team's rink since they're all very similar to each other. It's not like it was when there were dimensional differences with the boards or the locker rooms or even the ice surface. Wherever you go, you expect good ice and comfortable conditions.
"Your hometown fans definitely help, but in certain situations, I feel being on the road helps to," added Biron, who was a backup in Buffalo for seven seasons before joining the Flyers in February, 2007. "For me, there's a lot more to a playoff series than home ice advantage."
Only time will tell if home ice proves to be an important factor this postseason.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.