When people say that the regular season doesn't matter once the NHL playoffs begin, they are wrong. Regular-season results matter because they determine which teams have the home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
There are several advantages that teams with home ice hold over their opponents. One of them is the luxury of having the last change, which allows the head coach of the home team to see which players his opposite number has decided to put on the ice and then match up accordingly.
This gives the home team the ability to match its shutdown defensive pairing against the other team's top goal scorer(s), which can have a huge factor in the outcome of a game.
For example, whenever the Boston Bruins play the Toronto Maple Leafs, B's head coach Claude Julien puts his No. 1 defense pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the ice every time star winger Phil Kessel hops over the Leafs boards.
Chara and Seidenberg have done a great job shutting down Kessel, holding him to one even-strength goal in 24 career games versus Boston (including playoffs). In Boston's Game 1 victory last Wednesday, Chara was on the ice for all 21 of Kessel's shifts and held the young star to one shot on goal.
In addition to having last change, another positive for teams with home-ice advantage is the comfort of being able to go home to the comfort of their own family and bed and not a hotel after games and practices. The NHL playoffs are a grueling two months of the most intense hockey that players will ever experience, but it's a little easier for teams who have home-ice advantage and spend most of their off-time in the comforts of home and not on the road.
Traveling isn't as difficult as it was in the past since games are more spread out and today's players benefit from the advances of modern medicine and travel, but having to fly cross continent multiple times in a single series (2011 Cup Final between Boston and Vancouver, for example) is still a tiring process.
From an on-ice perspective, playing in front of your hometown fans often gives players the extra boost of energy and adrenaline needed to make plays when fatigue becomes a factor late in the third period and overtime.
Playing in an Original Six city (Boston, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal) or against an opponent in another traditional hockey market can be intimidating for younger teams or ones without a lot of playoff experience. These crowds can be a huge source of energy late in games.
Another reason to fight for home-ice advantage during the regular season is because a lot of players perform much better at home during the playoffs than on the road.
One example of this kind of player is Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo. During the Canucks' run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Vezina Trophy finalist went 12-3-1 at Rogers Arena, but won just four of his nine starts on the road.
Vancouver had home-ice advantage in 2011 as the Presidents' Trophy winners, but Luongo's performance was a good example of how crucial playing in front of home fans can be for some players.
Since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, teams with home-ice advantage have won more playoff series than the teams without it. Here's a look at how clubs have fared in the playoffs since the 2004-05 NHL lockout:
|Year||First Round||Conf. Semis||Conf. Finals||Stanley Cup Final|
|Total||34-22 (60%) ||14-14 (50%) ||8-6 (57.1%) ||5-2 (71.4%)
Through the first week of the 2013 playoffs, teams with the home-ice advantage are 14-8 and five of the eight series are led by the teams that started at home.
As the chart above shows, home ice has been most important in the first and fourth rounds over the last seven seasons. Prior to this season, teams have gone down 0-2 a total of 291 times in best-of-seven series, and only 37 of them have come back to win the series. Having home ice to start a series with a good chance to put an opponent in a quick 2-0 hole is a real advantage for teams.
On a scale of 1-5, how important is home-ice advantage?
In the Stanley Cup Final, it's especially important to have the last change, the energy of the fans behind you and the likelihood that you will get an edge in the penalties called.
The team with home-ice advantage has won 13 of the last 17 Stanley Cup Final series. Since 1990, seven Cup Final series have gone the full seven games, and the team with home-ice advantage has won five of them.
Home ice may not be as important as it used to be when old arenas such as the Boston Garden, Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium created particularly unique and intimidating atmospheres, but it's still something definitely worth playing for in the final weeks of the regular season.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.