The 2011 NHL Playoffs have been interesting to say the least. OT games almost every night. Four 7-game series in the first round. And, the road teams winning more than half of the games. Why are the road teams doing so well? Winning on the road in the NBA is a significant achievement and often leads to a series victory. In the NHL road wins have become a nightly occurrence.
In the first round of the playoffs home teams were only 23-26, highlighted by the Sharks-Kings where the home team only won one of six games in the series. In the second round road teams are at it again. Home teams have won only four of the first ten games, with the Sharks the only team to win two at home to start the series. In the East the one and two seeds lost their first 2 home games.
What are the reasons for this winning trend for road teams? Could just be luck or coincidence. In the next two rounds home teams could dominate. Even if they do I think there is something to this trend. The pressure of the expectations that a team is supposed to win at home could be the reason. Home teams feel they HAVE to win as well as entertain their fans.
Expectations are a funny thing. Good to have high expectations because that is how we achieve great things. However, expectations can feel like a 500 lb. gorilla on your back. Ask the Canucks in the first round against the Hawks. When they won in OT in Game 7 the release of emotion, mostly relief, was intense. One of the most emotional scenes in recent memory (for a first round game).
Expectations can create pressure. Home teams are expected to win, thus the saying that a series hasn't really started until a home team loses. Peter Laviolette of the Flyers attempted to add to the pressure the Bruins were feeling in their home arena going into Game 3.
"When you lose your first two games in your home building, I would say that there is a real expectation for the Bruins to win the series now," he said following Game 2. "So it relieves us of the pressure, I believe, a little bit, to just go in and play a game in Boston."
A day later, he felt the same way.
"We're going to go into Boston and have some fun," he told reporters Tuesday. "We just put our comfortable slippers on. … The pressure, it really gets alleviated a bit when you're down."
(Bruins a win away from another 3-0 lead on Flyers, NHL.com, www.nhl.com/ice/preview.htm?id=2010030223&navid=sb:preview)
The Bruins, however, handled it well scoring twice in the first minute of the game. However, when a home team does not get that lead you can feel the pressure in the building. The fans become less vocal and more nervous. The team may start pressing and making decisions out of the ordinary. The home team's power play tries to be perfect and fails to play a simple style of hockey that is more likely to lead to goals. The expectations start to become pressure for the home team. And pressure can lead to thinking too much instead of reacting, hesitating instead of being proactive, and being passive instead of aggressive.
Meanwhile, I believe professional hockey coaches have become experts at preparing their teams to play on the road. Teams play a simpler game, look to make fewer mistakes and get the puck on net. Often this equates to better performances.
Expectations are all about perception. If a team believes that they SHOULD or HAVE TO win then the pressure will increase. If, a home team can take a road team attitude into a game - believe in it's chances, but not place upon themselves the added burden of having to win - they can stick to a simpler style of play, and play a relaxed, confident hockey.
This is why coaches sometimes stay in hotels even though they are in their home city. To get the team away from any distractions, and create a road mentality. Right now the eight teams remaining could all benefit from a road mentality at home.