Less pressure on road teams? Seems that way in these NHL playoffs

Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning had plenty of reasons to smile after winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on the road.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning had plenty of reasons to smile after winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on the road. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Published May 17 2018

WASHINGTON — Between Games 3 and 4 of this Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Capitals, Tampa Bay forward J.T. Miller was asked about the success road teams are having in this series and in these playoffs.

"It's kind of weird so far that the road team has won the first three," Miller said.

With all due respect to Miller, it's not weird at all. In fact, in these playoffs, it has been somewhat common.

Home sweet home hasn't been sweet at all for teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Most NHL teams have become road warriors.

Heading into Thursday night, the road team had an impressive record of 34-39 in these playoffs. The Lightning was 4-1, including a victory in Game 3 in Washington. The Capitals are 7-1, including a victory in Games 1 and 2 at Amalie Arena.

So, one way to look at it is teams, especially good ones such as Tampa Bay and Washington, have no issues going on the road and finding ways to win.

But the other side to it is even good teams, such as Tampa Bay and Washington, occasionally struggle at home during the playoffs. Heading into Game 4, the Lightning had lost four total games this postseason. Three of those losses were at home. Washington, meantime, was 3-4 at home this postseason.

What gives? Are you actually better off playing on the road in the playoffs than playing at home? Do teams play better on the road?

"We've seen it this playoffs, that's for sure," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.

Stamkos has a theory. At home, there are more distractions.

"A lot of people have family and friends coming down and ticket requests," Stamkos said. "Sometimes there's a little added pressure of playing at home and wanting to do good things."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper agrees. To a point.

"I'll be honest," Cooper said, "if you polled every single player on both teams and asked them would you rather play a game at home or on the road, I'm pretty sure they would say we'd rather play at home."

That's because players do enjoy sleeping in their own beds and being surrounded by all the comforts of home — their actual home and their home-away-from, that being the rink. Yet Cooper knows what Stamkos is saying. On the road, it's only hockey. At home, there are other responsibilities and obligations.

"There is certain marked focus when you're on the road," Cooper said. "It's just the team together. The guys are talking hockey. The guys are focused on the plan. Instead of going home and all of a sudden, it's not hockey anymore. It's having fun with your kids. Dinner with the families. And more and more as the rounds go on, more and more people start flying in."

Caps coach Barry Trotz thinks it's all about mentality of the road team.

"I think it's us against the world when you're on the road," Trotz said.
In the past, Trotz has done something that former Lightning coach John Tortorella tried during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoff run. He has had his teams stay in hotels at home to simulate the road experience.

What's odd is, unlike the NBA, the rules are set up to benefit the home team in hockey. Home teams get the last change. That means during play stoppages, the road team must put its players on the ice before the home team. The home team waits to see which players go on the ice for the visitor and then decide which of its players will go up against the visitor. That way, the home team can be sure that its best defensive line can match up against the other team's best offensive line. Or it can chose to put its best offensive line up against a line that is not very good defensively.

Yet even with this advantage, home teams are having trouble in the playoffs. For some teams, home-ice advantage has become a disadvantage.

Usually, the one time home-ice advantage does seem to help is in Game 7.

Then again, there have been two Game 7s in this postseason. One home team won (Boston against Toronto), while one home team lost (Nashville against Winnipeg).

The Lightning hopes that being at home does matter in Game 7s.

If necessary, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final is next Wednesday.

At Tampa Bay.