The Road Far More Travelled
“It’s not a series until there is a road win.”
That’s a hockey saying older even than Zdeno Chara. Or outrage about officiating.
But this spring there isn’t a series until there is a home victory.
They have become rare as a Garth Snow admission of culpability. In these playoffs, the road team thus far has won 38 of 71 games, a .535 percentage that, since the lockout, is second only to .547 in 2012, according to Bob Waterman of the Elias Sports Bureau.
Those two springs are the only ones since the owners told the players to go home that not being away has proven to be a plus-500 proposition. That noted, only twice since the lockout–in 2013 and 2014–have teams not had at least a .400 cumulative playoff road-winning percentage.
Clearly, the concept of one precious, series-turning, road victory has gone the way of frozen pucks along the boards. Used to be, when you won one of the two on the road in the first four games, you could smell the next round. Now, you are just one game away from stinking out the joint at home and getting back on the plane. More than ever, teams are turning their front door key and punching off the alarm to find the enemy sitting on their couch, wearing their clothes, drinking their beer, watching a road win from the West Coast.
The hardest game to win is supposed to be the last one, even more so if it is on the road. Yeah, sure. Seven of the 12 series completed so far this spring have been closed out by the visitors, just like seven of the last 10 Cups.
You still want to believe that every drop of regular season sweat that went into a higher seeding and a Game Seven at home will prove worth it? Sucker. In putting away the Predators, Winnipeg looked more at home in Nashville than Shania Twain.
In the first round, the Flyers won two out of three in Pittsburgh and were smoked in all three at home. Relay that story to an old Penguin who could have had a 14-year career and never won once during a 42-game regular season losing streak at the Spectrum. He will believe home ice doesn’t mean anything about as much as a Caps fan watching his team lose twice in overtime to start the playoffs can currently fathom his team being up 2-0 in the semifinals. Holy Gaetan Duchesne! Washington is 7-1 on the road in the playoffs.
After the Caps routinely won Game One, 4-2, last week at a stunned, silent Amalie Arena, Nikita Kucherov’s recipe for Game Two was to “give the fans a good time.” We could have told him that was a waste of energy. Save it for Game Three, where better–and cheaper–entertainment will be had watching the game on television from Washington.
Jon Cooper blundered not only in not benching Kucherov for a misguided attitude, but also in directing his team to the Eastern Conference title. Maybe you can survive one series with home ice advantage, as six teams did in the first series this spring. But the last thing you want is home ice in every round.
In this parallel hockey universe, an expansion team is 1-1 in the semifinals and the Caps, perennial opponents of the first and second round, are six wins from the Cup. Go figure, but now Washington has the unenviable task of winning at home in front of a blissful crowd that has been waiting practically since Andre Peloffy for something like this. Those people are going to be loving every good thing they do, encouragement the Caps not likely are going to be able to stand.
For the sake of their team, these people will have to stop being so damn supportive and begin a mocking, singsong. “Hollllllltby” chant just to make their goaltender more comfortable. Another means would be to greet every Cap goal with stunned silence. Not so hard, if they pretend Brooks Orpik scored it.
Road teams love quiet buildings, long changes for two periods, fans impatiently yelling “shoot, shoot” from the first touch of a power play, and anything and everything that makes the home team believe it has to do to keep the fans on their side. Having to put their sticks down first on faceoffs doesn’t help the visitors secure those draws, of course, but they figure they are not supposed to win anyway–all part of the reverse, nothing-to-lose psychology that could lead someday to hockey crowds being like golf crowds. Mark our words.
Bleep the matchups and that seventh man stuff. In this league of parity, fourth lines can play against first lines and, besides, players no longer want your support. All that does is put pressure on them.
How did it get like this? When did adulation begin making everybody nervous? We have a few theories how black became white and white became black, starting with NHL making the road teams wear white in 2003, something they hadn’t done since 1970. No longer can you separate the good guys from the bad guys in black, except when Brad Marchand is playing. This is particularly confusing in Winnipeg, where the Jets clearly struggle with their fans wearing white while they are wearing blue. They lost two out of three at home to Nashville and now, predictably, Game Two to Vegas.
Olympia Stadium, with its weird corners, and the closets that were Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium are long gone, leaving a bunch of monstrous buildings that all look and feel the same, facilitating confusion as to where one is. These places have new names every two weeks, anyway. You are lucky if the bus driver knows where to take you. Once there, as long as the place has ice, it doesn’t much matter.
Players used to know when they were someplace they didn’t want to be. So did referees, whose subconscious desire to be liked represented most of the real home ice advantage. Not any longer apparently. This spring half of the 16 playoff eligible teams got more power play opportunities on the road than at home.
Intimidation has gone the way of Stanley Jonathan. It’s been decades since Mike Milbury went into the Madison Square Garden stands hitting home fans with their own shoes. The Flyers last celebrated Fan Appreciation Night when Tie Domi gave a warm welcome to a one who toppled through the glass into the visiting penalty box. Security is good now and that’s bad for the home team. The only intimidation left is Rene Rancourt singing the last note of the anthems and then making all those motions like Mr. Miyagi. Scares the hell out of me.
So here are the Golden Knights, 1-1, having to trying to steal one at home against the Jets, who are 4-2 on the road. And the Caps, coming off two wins in Tampa and still having everything so prove because the Lightning, remember, is 3-1 on the road in the playoffs.
The players have an uncomplicated explanation for what is going on. On the road it’s a lot easier to keep it simple. Get an early goal, line up across the blueline, let them home team do the passing, the singing, the dancing, the entertaining and the frustrated cross-checking. The combatants tell you to a man, the sweetest sound they can hear is silence after scoring a goal and the best sight fans streaming to the exits with six minutes to go.
Now what is Cooper going to do to turn the series around? Just show up, of course. The Lightning are on the road, so let Barry Trotz, up 2-0 with a team playing perfectly, make all the lineup and line changes inherent in being in a hostile environment where they can kill you with kindness.
On the odd chance Washington wins Game Three to take a 3-0 series lead, we have an idea for the Lightning before they take their last shot. Don’t wait until the end of the game to raise your sticks and thank the Washington crowd for all their futile and distracting cheering. Salute those fans in the pregame.