There was a time when a road victory in the Stanley Cup playoffs was considered a triumph for the human spirit. It was astounding to all when the 2003 Wild came back from 3-1 deficits vs. Colorado and Vancouver, considering both comebacks required two victories in “their building.’’
That was long the monster obstacle spoken about by NHL road teams: playing in “their building.’’
Actually, a hockey team has never won a playoff game in an opponents’ building. They have always “stole one’’ in the other team’s building.
The first round of the NHL playoffs was played on Wednesday and Thursday, and there five such stolen games by road teams – including one by Nashville against Chicago, the team with the most points in the Western Conference, and one by St. Louis against the Wild, the team in the second most points in the West.
The only home team among four in the West to win an opener was Anaheim, and that was a 3-2 nail biter against Calgary.
Zach Parise is a second-generation NHL standout, being the son of the late, gritty J.P., so he’s spent his whole life hearing of the treachery that awaits when playing a road playoff game.
“When you started with two games at home, people used to look at it as two guaranteed wins,’’ Parise said. “It’s never been that, but I do think that it doesn’t matter as much today. When you look at the standings, there’s not that much of a gap between teams.’’
The Wild finished with 106 points in the Central, three behind division champ Chicago. St. Louis had to fight hard to avoid a wild-card assignment, yet wound up with 99 points.
“Seven points; that’s not much difference,’’ Parise said. “There aren’t many mismatches in the playoffs.’’
The home ice advantage seems to come into play more clearly later in a series — Games 5 and 7 — than it does when the favorite team is playing the first two at home.
“Some hockey people say there’s more pressure on the home team at the start of a series than the visitors, and that’s probably true,’’ Parise said.
“The road team is trying to get one out of two. Yeah, it’s great if it wins both, but after Game 2, you don’t hear players on the team going back home saying they were disappointed with a split.
“As the home team, you are disappointed when you don’t win both to start a series.’’
Parise was talking in the home locker room after Friday morning’s brief skating session at the Xcel Energy Center. In theory, the pressure was on the Wild on Friday night after the 2-1 overtime loss at 12:03 a.m. Thursday.
There didn’t seem to be any visible tension eight hours before the puck drop.
One reason was that the Game 1 loss could be attributed to St. Louis goalie Jake Allen, period. The second reason could be that today’s NHL players don’t have the same trepidation of playing on the road as their ancestors.
“I’d say there is an advantage from the home crowd at the start of the game,’’ Jason Zucker said. “Most of the time, home teams come out flying. And the road team tries to withstand that punch by slowing the game down.
“The first push can be five or six minutes, maybe half of the first period, but if home team doesn’t get a goal, it settles into a hockey game between two good teams.’’
Zucker mentioned the ups and down that are inevitable in a playoff game and said: “Beyond the start, there are two or three other times when the home crowd can make a difference. When you’re making a strong push and the fans are up there going crazy, that does give you extra energy.’’
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about the idea that home ice isn’t as important as in the ’90s and before.
“I know that experience very well,’’ said Boudreau, in reference to some brutal Game 7 losses at home on his coaching resume, then added:
“I don’t know what it is. In part, the advantage years ago might have been more than the fans. Each building had its own quirks — like the Boston Garden’s rink was smaller.
“Now, every arena is the same, every crowd is high energy for the playoffs. And there are 14 teams left out of the playoffs. The 16 that make it are all good teams.’’
Not like the days a quarter-century back when 16 out of 21 made the playoffs, and sub-mediocrity was rewarded.