This works both ways, so it came as little surprise when the Canadiens' top center, Yanic Perreault, who had scored 21 of his 27 regular-season goals at home last season, tallied just three times (all at the Molson Centre) in 11 postseason matches. Or that Sergei Gonchar, the skilled but beatable Capitals defense-man, gets spun inside out and stripped to his thigh pads by opposing wingers each postseason—in the last three regular seasons combined Gonchar was +38 at home and -1 on the road.
The road is also where a team's bravery is gauged. In March 1997 Colorado forward Mike Keane called the Wings "a heartless team...a bunch of homers." He wasn't slighting the production of guys like Yzerman; Keane believed the Wings were only willing to fight in Joe Louis Arena, where they had the crowd at their back and Bowman could use matchups to his brawlers' advantage. It was a harsh charge that lingers in the rivalry.
For many NHL general managers a player's effectiveness on the road is a measure of his worth. Last March 19 the New Jersey Devils traded forwards Jason Arnott and Randy McKay to the Dallas Stars for forwards Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner. Arnott and Nieuwendyk were the principal players in the deal, and the swap looked like a curious one for New Jersey. Arnott scored as consistently as Nieuwendyk, was younger (by eight years), cheaper (he was earning $2.6 million to Nieuwendyk's $5.5) and, at 6'4" and 220 pounds, seemed better suited for the more physical Eastern Conference than the 6'1", 205-pound Nieuwendyk did.
New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello won't say why he deemed Arnott expendable, but he does say that he pays attention to the play of guys on the road. "It's one area in scouting in which you can separate players," Lamoriello says. "There are those who meet the challenge and those who don't. That tells you a lot." So it's probably no coincidence that over the last three seasons Nieuwendyk has been among the NHL's top scorers when comparing his road-to-home numbers. During that time Arnott has averaged .5 of a point per game less on the road than at home, the worst drop-off in the league.
"I never got into matchups too much, because I didn't want my players worrying about them. Also, just in case I got outcoached or outmatched in the game, I didn't want them to laugh at me."
Every coach is expected to get the matchups he wants at home, especially on face-offs and late in games. That's why the blunder by Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien in May's second-round series against Carolina was so stunning. Three minutes into overtime of Game 4 in Montreal, there was a face-off deep in the Canadiens' zone. The Hurricanes sent out O'Neill, who is excellent on draws (56.7%). But instead of tapping Perreault, the NHL's top face-off man (61.3%), Therrien sent out fourth-line center Bill Lindsay (45.6%). O'Neill beat Lindsay cleanly, pushing the puck to the point, from where defenseman Niclas Wallin slapped it into the net for the goal that cost Montreal the game and possibly the series. Therrien's explanation afterward was odd. "In overtime," he said, "you have to use your backups more."
No coaches place greater emphasis on matching lines and defensemen than veterans Pat Burns of the Devils and Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild. Both have built successful careers largely by winning at home. (Burns's winning percentage is .557, Lemaire's .540.) Fall behind a Burns or a Lemaire team in its building, and the coach's skill at matching makes it difficult to come back. On the road, though, the two coaches' winning percentages drop dramatically (Burns, .483; Lemaire, .467). With the exception of Lemaire's winning the Cup with New Jersey after the lockout-shortened 1995 season, neither coach has had the postseason success his regular-season record would suggest.
Imaginative coaches, such as Bowman and Hitchcock, have a way of turning the axis of convention upside down. In addition to exploiting the home-ice advantage, those two work to turn the road disadvantage in their favor. "An ability to change players while the game flows is the essence of being able to win on the road," says Bowman, who retired after winning his ninth Cup in June. "It may be the most important thing in hockey."
To adjust to the home coach's move, players have to get on and off the ice quickly without the team's losing defensive position or wasting an offensive chance. Bowman would teach that by presiding over intrasquad scrimmages with a horn he blared whenever he saw the right moment to change. Hitchcock has developed scrimmage drills called Change 1, Change 2 and Change 3, drills in which he changes one, two or three players at a time soon after the face-off. "On the road you can't put out the five guys you want because the home coach will negate it," says Hitchcock. "You have to get, say, three of the guys on and then work a change after the puck drops." Devotion to such drills has contributed to Hitchcock's astounding road success. In seven seasons as the Dallas Stars' coach, from 1995-96 through 2001-02, Hitchcock's teams went 136-90-28 on the road, by far the best such record in the NHL over that span. In '98-99, when Dallas won the Cup, the Stars' road record was 22-11-8, including 7-4 in the playoffs.
A subplot to the memorable Stars-Edmonton Oilers playoff series that unfolded every spring from 1997 through 2001 was that it didn't matter where the games were held (the home team had a 13-14 record). The Stars, guided by Hitchcock, won tight, emotional matches in Edmonton. The Oilers, then led on the ice by Doug Weight, regularly won in Dallas. At home Hitchcock stuck to a disciplined checking strategy against Weight, splitting the duties between dogged defender Guy Carbonneau and all-world center Mike Modano. Weight thrived as much on philosophy as on skill. "I'd look to see who was coming over the boards to meet me," he says. "If it was Carbonneau, I'd get myself psyched, because I knew I didn't have to worry about him scoring. If it was Modano, I'd get juiced at the idea of playing against a guy of his level."