What happened to home-ice advantge?



By Maureen Landers

I'm not one to hit the panic button on the Buffalo Sabres' embryonic 2010-11 campaign. I mean, we are just ten games in and there are more than seventy of these things to go.

Trouble is, half of those will be played at HSBC Arena, where this team can't seem to buy a victory. Five home games, five losses. Ugh. 

We've seen the NHL change shape, size and locale over its decades of existence--six franchises eventually joined by 24 more; Wales and Campbell gave way to East and West; Quebec, Hartford and Winnipeg begat Denver, Raleigh and Phoenix. But one thing's never changed: win your games at home. The formula has rarely, if ever, deviated from the simple model of striving for .500 on the road and then making hay in your home barn, where surely you had the advantage of making the first line change, having 15,000-plus supporters pouring out their adulation, and having driven only 20 minutes to the rink after sleeping in your own bed, rather than flying hundreds of miles and living out of a hotel room.

This presumed edge, however, is lost on these Sabres, who seem much more comfortable on the road than they are downtown. Buffalo has played its three best games in the opposition's rink in October, including Saturday's 6-1 thumping of the Devils, a team having myriad issues entertaining a home audience. But it's wholly unrealistic to think that will last an entire season--they're not going to run the table on every road trip.

Sooner or later, they've got to make the Arena a special place for themselves and their faithful. At some point, sooner rather than later, a team's playoff life depends on it.

Fans' knee-jerk tendency to push the panic button seems all the more justified given Buffalo's listless play under the shadow of the Skyway. The Sabres habitually spot the visitors the first goal and wind up playing from behind all night. They play recklessly and lazily in all three zones, as if fans seated around the lower bowl will jump onto the ice and cover the defensive zone. And, perhaps most troubling, they clutch their sticks that much tighter once the groans of their fans reach a crescendo. That speaks to this group's collective focus and maturity, something its biggest critics have understandably groused over these past few years.

It's tiresome to hear coaches and players babble on about making the home ice a tough place to visit. It's amounted to a lot of gum-flapping and little more. Can you remember the last time (2006 and 2007 notwithstanding) you felt good about them having the home ice "advantage," even through last year's Northeast Division-winning season? I'm wonting for that to change. If it doesn't, I'm starting to worry that the next five months will unfold like a nightmarish replay of the lost 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons.

Buffalo would have to produce five wins on familiar ice just to even its record at home. That in itself seems like a tall order for this group. I'm not sayin' it’s time to panic. I'm just sayin'.

Sometimes I'm puzzled upon hearing longtime Western New Yorkers coo about the old Aud. They invariably mention: A. harrowingly steep inclines leading to the "Orange" section, B. the pervasive odor of cheap beer mixed with stale popcorn and rotten peanuts, and, C. an astonishing dearth of Jumbotrons, luxury suites and the obligatory creature comforts we've all come to expect with today's fan experience. But in the same breath, they'll say with all the certitude in the world that the Aud was a very special place, a birthright ... something they truly regret I never had a chance to experience.

I am beginning to think they loved that old pile of concrete and rebar for one prevailing reason: the Sabres played their tails off there and usually won. So when is it going to be HSBC Arena's turn? 

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