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The Invaders It's a special breed that plays harder, tougher and smarter in enemy arenas, melting the home-ice advantage

Oct. 14, 2002
Oct. 14, 2002

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Oct. 14, 2002

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The Invaders It's a special breed that plays harder, tougher and smarter in enemy arenas, melting the home-ice advantage

"Playing on the road takes mettle, courage and chemistry, and it
may be the hardest thing to do in this sport. But if you can do
it, then you've got something. Because if there's one way to
measure championship teams in the NHL, it's this: They win on the
road." --Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock

This is an article from the Oct. 14, 2002 issue Original Layout

As if it weren't enough to be many miles from home, running on
room-service cheese fries. As if it weren't enough to be skating
on an unfamiliar sheet of ice gouged with ruts and playing pucks
off end boards dotted with undetectable dead spots. As if it
weren't enough to be in a building rocking with enemy fans prone
to pelting visitors with anything from plastic rats (in Florida)
to dead octopuses (Detroit) to spectacularly vulgar insults
(Philadelphia). As if all that weren't enough to torment a
visiting team, there's entry 17d of the National Hockey League:
Official Rules:

Following the stoppage of play, the visiting team shall promptly
place a line-up on the ice ready for play and no substitution
shall be made from that time until play has been resumed. The
home team may then make any desired substitution....

Tough nut for the visitors, eh? No other major sport gives the
home team such a built-in advantage. Football? Home clubs don't
even get to call heads or tails for the opening coin flip. Hoops?
Host teams don't even pick which basket to shoot at. Baseball?
True, the home club bats last, which is an edge, but it's nothing
compared with the advantage in the NHL, where Rule 17d flat out
changes the way the game is played. Imagine a poker game in which
the visiting player has to show his hand first. Then the home
player riffles through the deck and pulls out whichever cards he
wants. That's pretty much what Rule 17d says.

The home coach can send out his most punishing defensive players
every time a visitors' top scorer steps onto the ice. The home
coach can get every face-off matchup he wants. When he sees a
vulnerability in the visitors' lineup, he can exploit it.
Consider this from the Buffalo Sabres' exploitable--but thoroughly
self-aware--defenseman Jason Woolley. "At home I get matched up
against the third or fourth lines," he says. "But on the road, I
sometimes find myself out there against [Jaromir] Jagr and those
[elite] guys. When that happens the thing I need to do as soon as
the puck drops is get the hell off the ice."

That he can do--the visiting team can quickly substitute players
after the puck is dropped; but every whistle means that the deck
gets restacked in favor of the homebodies. Never are top forwards
more tested, physically and psychologically, than when they're in
another team's barn. "You have to go against the toughest guys
five out of five shifts," says the St. Louis Blues' superb
first-line center Doug Weight, who has scored 59% of his goals on
the road over the past three seasons. "You play the Colorado
Avalanche and you're saying to yourself, 'Oh, sheesh, here comes
[bruising defenseman] Adam Foote to knock me around.' At home
maybe you only face him three of five shifts. It makes a
difference."

With so many factors working in favor of the home club, the most
valuable asset a team can have is a player who raises his game on
foreign ice, playing even harder, tougher and smarter than he
does at home. "There's a sense with the great road player that
he's fearless, that he'll do anything to win," says Avalanche
All-Star defenseman Rob Blake. "Some guys don't want the puck
when the crowd is roaring against them, but the great road
players don't hear the crowd, and they don't care what the
matchup is. Those are the guys you want on your side in a tough
building, and the guys you hate to see coming into yours."

At 37, Steve Yzerman, the Detroit Red Wings' 5'11", 185-pound
center and captain, remains that rare player who blends
extraordinary talent--he's one of four players to score more than
150 points in a season--with physical courage and obstinate
desire. Last spring Yzerman hoisted the Stanley Cup for the third
time. The previous occasion, in 1998, he also won the Conn Smythe
Trophy as playoff MVP. He's cagey and relentless, and along with
the New York Rangers' Mark Messier, Yzerman is hailed as the
greatest captain of his era. In short, he's built for the road.
Of the 29 players who have scored more than 500 career goals,
Yzerman is the only one who has more on the road (343) than at
home (313). "That's leadership," says Hitchcock. "He knows he has
to play that way on the road to get everyone else into the
fight."

In the 1998 Cup finals the Red Wings beat the Washington Capitals
in the first two games, in Detroit. Yzerman was fabulous,
producing two goals and an assist, in part because Red Wings
coach Scotty Bowman had the last change and kept Yzerman away
from the Capitals' masterly defensive forward Esa Tikkanen. When
the series moved to Washington for Game 3, a win at home for the
Capitals was essential, and Tikkanen was to shadow Yzerman. Just
35 seconds into the game, with the crowd stomping and waving
towels, Yzerman got the puck along the left wing boards. Tikkanen
immediately clamped on to him and stayed with Yzerman as they
bulled to the net. There the two crashed into goalie Olaf Kolzig,
and when the puck squirted loose, Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom
scored the goal that broke Washington's spirits. The crowd fell
quiet. Detroit went on to sweep. Steve Yzerman, road warrior.

"The guys who play well on the road are the guys who are going to
be there in the playoffs," says Ron Wilson, who coached the
Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Capitals for a total of nine
seasons. Is it any surprise, then, that Yzerman, a legendary
regular-season road player, is a playoff superhero? Or that
Carolina Hurricanes wing Jeff O'Neill (page 78) is emerging as
one of the league's top road players and the team's playoff
force?

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
defenseman, 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."
--Ron Wilson

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."

In the only series the Oilers won, in 1997, Weight set up two
goals, including the game-winner, in a 4-3 road victory in Game
7. "You know," he says, reflecting on that match, "there's
nothing more satisfying than winning on the road. It's like you
have everything against you, but you still come out on top.
What's a better feeling than that?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO RUDE GUEST St. Louis center Weight is usually matched against top checking forwards (such as L.A.'s Ian Laperriere) but still has scored 59% of his goals on the road the last three years.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: LOU CAPOZZOLA (2)COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO EXTRA MILEAGE Yzerman is the only NHL player with 500-plus goals to score more than half of them on the road.

Comfort Zones

Over the last three seasons Scott Gomez of the Devils scored
38.2% more points on the road than he did in home games, the
largest such differential in the NHL. On the other hand, his
former New Jersey teammate Jason Arnott scored twice as many
points at home than he did in road games over the same span, the
largest differential in that category. Here are the top five
players in each group (minimum: 120 points).

PLAYER
HOME ROAD PCT.
GAMES G A PTS. GAMES G A PTS. INCREASE
ROADIES

Scott Gomez, Devils
117 16 60 76 117 27 78 105 38.2
Adam Deadmarsh, Kings
104 28 32 60 100 36 43 79 36.9
Sami Kapanen, Hurricanes
118 32 45 77 117 39 58 97 27.1
Chris Drury, Flames
115 33 44 77 120 32 69 101 25.7
Eric Daze, Blackhawks
112 47 27 74 108 47 42 89 24.7

HOMEBODIES

Jason Arnott, Stars
102 46 58 104 101 22 30 52 49.5
Daymond Langkow, Coyotes
115 37 70 107 118 21 38 59 46.3
Patrik Elias, Devils
116 63 83 146 113 41 42 83 41.6
Petr Sykora, Mighty Ducks
115 52 72 124 110 29 44 73 38.5
Gary Roberts, Maple Leafs
110 45 50 95 110 28 31 59 37.9

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

"The guys who play well on the road are the guys who'll be there
in the playoffs."