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VOL. 42 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 23, 2018

Presidents’ Trophy jinx: Preds might not want home-ice advantage

By John Glennon

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Having rocketed past 100 points faster than any team in franchise history, the Predators are well on their way to producing a historic regular season.

They are not only poised to capture their first-ever division title and stand a very good chance of claiming their first Presidents’ Trophy, awarded annually to the team with the best regular-season record.

Should the Preds accomplish the latter feat, they’d earn home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which would certainly appear to be a big boost, given how well Nashville played in front of its wildly enthusiastic fans during last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“We all know we love to play at home,” Predators captain Roman Josi says. “It’s definitely a big thing for us to get home-ice advantage.”

But neither the Presidents’ Trophy nor home-ice advantage have necessarily served as predictors for claiming the Stanley Cup – the ultimate NHL prize.

The website FiveThirtyEight last year produced a study showing that NHL home teams in the playoffs – since the year 2000 – had an expected win percentage of just 55.3 percent, well below that of NFL teams (64.7 percent) and NBA teams (64.5 percent) in home playoff contests.

Then there’s the Presidents’ Trophy, which has often seemed more like a curse.

During the past 14 years, only two Presidents’ Trophy winners – Detroit in 2008 and Chicago in 2013 – have gone on to capture that season’s Stanley Cup. A whopping eight of those 14 Presidents’ Trophy winners, on the other hand, didn’t even advance beyond the second round of the playoffs.

So just how much is that home-ice advantage worth in hockey playoffs, anyway?

“You know what, I think it matters less than in other sports,” acknowledges ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, who coached an eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings team into the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.

“I think the one thing a hockey player takes pride in is that he can win and play good anywhere.

“He doesn’t need home ice. He doesn’t need home fans. He doesn’t need to sleep in his own bed. He can go to Timbuktu, and with the passion and character that hockey players have, find a way to win on the road.”

Guys find a way to win anywhere

The road team’s ability to win in the NHL playoffs has rarely been so evident as it was following the 2011-12 season, when home teams posted a postseason mark of just 39 wins and 47 losses.

It wasn’t too much better for home teams in the 2015-16 playoffs when they produced a record of just 46-45. And even last year, home teams were 47-40, a winning rate of only 54 percent.

One reason NHL teams haven’t had as much home playoff success as NFL teams in recent years is the lack of natural home advantages.

In football, for instance, visiting playoff teams might have to contend with the nasty cold of places like New England or Green Bay, the altitude of Denver, or the heat of Miami. With hockey, conditions are the same in every arena.

“When I came in the business about 25 years ago, there were NHL rinks that had distinct home advantages, like Chicago Stadium, because the size of the ice sheet itself was smaller than other arenas,” explains Mark Spector, a senior columnist for the Sportsnet.ca website in Canada.

“The old Boston Garden had a completely different shaped ice surface, so the Bruins tailored their team to play in that arena, as did Chicago in a different way. Now all the rinks are identical, and frankly, most of the buildings are identical.”

The Presidents’ Trophy winners struggle to win the Stanley Cup are the illustration that home-ice advantage in the playoffs is no guarantee of success. In seven of the last nine seasons, the team that compiled the best regular-season home record was knocked out of the playoffs prior to the third round.

Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy in each of the past two seasons but didn’t advance beyond the second round.

“I think obviously if you have the choice of having it or not, you’d rather have home ice,” Melrose says. “There’s no doubt about that. But any hockey player, any coaching staff, feels that in the playoffs, they can walk into any building and win. I think that’s just a tribute to our athletes.

“In the NHL, it is just something that doesn’t matter. Guys will find a way to win anywhere.”

There’s only one Nashville

The Predators, of course, are not going to suddenly start throwing games in order to avoid following the perilous playoff path of many previous Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nashville is simply trying to win every game on the schedule, which is something the Preds have done with great success of late.

Heading into the final 11 games on the schedule 10 points ahead of second-place Winnipeg in the Central – and a four-point lead vs. Tampa Bay in the overall standings – the Preds appear to have an excellent chance of capturing the first division title and Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

Those accomplishments would – if nothing else – serve as impressive milestones.

“That would mean a lot, I think, to all of us and for our fans, too,” Preds goalie Pekka Rinne says of finishing with the NHL’s best regular-season mark. “There’s not too many banners in (Bridgestone Arena), so that would be a good one to have. That would be great.”

It’s hard to say how much difference home-ice advantage through the playoffs would be for the Preds.

On the one hand, the Predators were all but unbeatable at Bridgestone last year in the postseason, winning nine of their 11 home playoff games. They also have a 25-7-4 home record this season, having played in front of a sellout crowd on every occasion.

So maybe home games in Nashville mean a bit more than do home games in some other arenas.

“Nashville is one arena left in the league where it’s certainly a distinct experience,” Spector points out. “There’s only one Nashville. I’ll tell you that right now. So, if it (home-ice advantage) exists anywhere, it may exist more in Nashville than anywhere else.”

Adds Melrose: “I was listening to (Nashville fans) chanting the other night, and it was great. They are the most creative, funniest and loudest fans. I don’t know any fans that have more fun than the Nashville fans. It is without a doubt a truly remarkable crowd.”

On the other hand, the Predators of 2017 served as Exhibit A of how little home-ice can matter in the playoffs. Eighth-seeded Nashville won three series as the road team – a stretch that included sweeping the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

Nashville won at least one road game in each of its first three series before losing in all three away games at Pittsburgh.

Under coach Peter Laviolette, the Preds are 0-1 in series when they’ve had home-ice advantage over the past three postseasons and 4-2 in series when their opponents have had home-ice advantage. The Predators even won a Game 7 on the road in 2016, knocking off Anaheim in the first round.

So, if the Preds fall short of earning the league’s best regular-season record, fans shouldn’t be overly concerned if Nashville winds up as the road team in a series.

By the same token, as impressive as it would be to see the Preds capture their first division crown and earn their first Presidents’ Trophy, neither accomplishment would make Nashville a lock for the Stanley Cup.

“Sadly, it’s the old cliché – once the regular season ends and playoffs begin, nothing counts anymore,” Spector says.

“That’s what players say. It’s a boring quote. But the problem is, it’s also true.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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