It has now officially been one month since the San Jose Sharks lost a game at HP Pavilion. Otherwise, The Shark Tank has lived up to its name in this post-season and the well-rested teal denizens can thank their rabid fans and their own clutch performances for their current status as Cup contenders.
But the Sharks are the exception to the rule this year. Home ice advantage, it seems, is anything but.
In the Eastern Conference in particular, being a top seed clearly meant nothing. The top three teams (Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo) went down in the first round, while the fourth-seeded Penguins lost to No. 8-seed Montreal in the second. Higher-seeded Boston also lost a fight for its life, losing a Game 7 at home after having 3-0 series and final-game leads.
In fact, Game 7s have been a harrowing ordeal for the home side this year. In the four series that have gone the distance so far, the visitors have come away victorious each time – Montreal twice, and Detroit and Philadelphia once. With their win, the Flyers became the third team in NHL history to comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.
So what gives? Isn’t home-ice advantage what all teams play for in the regular season?
I have to wonder if the increasing pressure on teams from their fan bases plays a part.
When the Penguins fell apart in the first period of their Game 7 loss to Montreal, it didn’t take long for an already skittish fan base – one that I’m sure expected a dousing of the Habs in five games at most – to jump on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. True, Fleury didn’t have his sharpest of outings, but when the going gets tough, the last thing you want is for 16,000 of your own supporters to rain down scorn upon you. I’m thinking it doesn’t help the psyche.
Not that I’m blaming the fans. There’s a collective fragility to any group that has been let down before and while Pens faithful don’t have anything to complain about historically, the tender supporters of the Vancouver Canucks sure do. The franchise, so full of promise this season, once again fell short of the Stanley Cup. In capitulating to Chicago in six games, the Canucks not only lost all three contests at home, but did so by wide margins.
Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy when fans jump off the bandwagon mid-game? Do the boos further disenfranchise players already under the heat lamp?
Hopefully it would take more to throw off a professional athlete. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact hockey players are more finely-tuned than ever. After all, current NHLers fly charter on nice jets, stay at great hotels and watch what they eat and when they sleep.
When they’re on the road, they don’t even have the burden of domestic matters (kids waking them up in the middle of the night, etc.) to worry about.
The fact the NHL has chosen to extend series lengths instead of compress them likely helps the visitors. There have been no back-to-back contests this year – which hasn’t always been the case – even when a Philly-Boston Game 7 tilt on Thursday could have allowed the Eastern Conference final to begin on a Saturday night.
The upshot is that day off. No one is rushed, bumps and bruises have just a little extra time to mend and readjusting strategy allows for maximum preparation.
Not that anyone has been able to solve Jaroslav Halak for more than one game, but hey – anything can happen, right?
THN Puck Panel - Sharks vs. Blackhawks, who has the advantage?
Host Ryan Dixon sits down with writers John Grigg and Ryan Kennedy to discuss... The importance of depth on defense for both teams… San Jose’s ability to handle Chicago’s net presence… If the Sharks have finally shaken the underachievers label… And who the potential difference makers can be in the series. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper | PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Jason Cassidy
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.