Home ice can be tough in NHL playoffs

Published 9:51 pm Friday, April 28, 2017

A chorus of boos greeted the announcement of Sidney Crosby’s first goal in Game 1 at the Washington Capitals. During the announcement of his second, the red-rocking Washington Capitals crowd was silent.

There’s no place like road for the Pittsburgh Penguins and other teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Through early in the second round, the visiting team is 26-20 in the playoffs, a .565 winning percentage that hasn’t been approached since 2012 and has as much to do with the NHL’s parity as tactical advantages of playing at home.

No one has been better on the road the past two seasons as the defending Cup champion Penguins at 9-5. Pittsburgh winger Bryan Rust believes the key is handling the momentum that an intimidating crowd can feed off of and swinging it the other way.

Email newsletter signup

“It gives us energy to take energy from the crowd and from the building,” Rust said Friday. “That’s something we pride ourselves in and we look to do when we’re playing road games.”

Toronto coach Mike Babcock remarked that there’s nothing like making opposing fans sit on their hands and watch the game nervously with long faces. But there’s something that creates a road-ice advantage that goes counterintuitive to the benefits of hockey at home.

The home team gets the last change so the coach can get the more advantageous matchup. But that doesn’t always work as intended if the home team wants to keep its star players away from certain forward lines or defensive pairings.

“Sometimes depending on the situations it’s almost the road team that dictates how the game is played because just the guys they put on the ice in certain faceoffs, and then the other team has to respond to that,” Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said. “It’s that fine line.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz knows that in chasing matchups sometimes “you allow the visiting coach to control your bench.” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he and his staff don’t play the matchup game too often, which is perhaps a big reason for the road success dating to last year.

Then there’s a slight rules tweak made two years ago designed to create offense that took one other piece of home-ice advantage away. The visiting player taking the faceoff used to have to put his stick down first, and now instead it’s the player on his defensive side of the ice.

Faceoffs aside, teams try to play a different brand of hockey on the road, often playing it safer in the process. That goes hand in hand with managing a hostile environment.

“In the playoffs, a home game, the crowd, there’s energy and there’s momentum to take from that, but the road team can play with that, too,” Capitals right winger Tom Wilson said.

Mike Yeo, whose St. Louis Blues went 3-0 on the road in upsetting the Minnesota Wild in the first round, credits his team’s play away from home late in the regular season as a big reason for this continued success.

“We didn’t have the luxury of choosing whether we wanted to play well or not on the road and with that comes some confidence,” Yeo said. “I don’t think there are big differences in our game. We try not to change our game. We try to have the same approach, regardless of our opponent, regardless of where we’re playing, whether it’s home or away.”

Washington forward Daniel Winnik has always wondered about the value of home-ice advantage and still thinks it matters this time of year. Part of it he thinks has to do with the parity in the league now, where the difference between the first and eighth seeds isn’t that substantial.

The Nashville Predators showed that in sweeping the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, and the Los Angeles Kings won it all as the No. 8 seed in 2012, going a record 10-1 on the road as they carved through the playoffs. In the salary-cap era, the team with the most road playoff wins has either won the Cup or lost in the final.