No place like road for playoff success

BOB KLAGER -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 5:25 PM ET

 The Ottawa Senators have seen the future and its name is "gut-check time."

 Okay, maybe it's one of the more irritating cliches come NHL playoffs. But we all know these are the days when every guy in the room needs to give 110% -- you know, really needs to go the extra mile, take it to the next level, leave it all out on the ice.

  After last night's Game 2 tilt with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's got to be damned certain the Sens do.

 Two days after this Eastern Conference quarter-final opened with a sluggish effort from the Buds, the Leafs and their fans showed up against their bitter Ontario rivals at a supercharged Air Canada Centre and, well, you know how the rest of the script reads. If Ottawa's going to see ice or gate revenues beyond the first round, it had better check its guts. And according to Dan Voyer, that means checking its guts at home.

 Voyer's not just a hockey fan, but a University of New Brunswick psychology professor who believes that sports commentators are fanning on their shots when they suggest one team has the home-ice advantage over another. Arriving in Ottawa early this morning after a promising out-of-town start against the Leafs, the Sens still can't take anything for granted -- including home-ice advantage.

 "I know that in the playoffs it means nothing," says Voyer, whose research with a group of Canadian psychologists has to resonate close to, er, home for hockey teams and their fans at this time of year.

 Studying Stanley Cup finals between 1961 and 1993, Voyer and his fellow psychologists delved into a phenomenon that fragile Sens fans have come to know as the "choke effect" -- especially in post-season outings against the Leafs. Researchers set out to prove that when games are critical and players have the chance to become not just millionaires but winning millionaires, they become more self-conscious and are prone to mistakes.

 The statistical study of NHL playoff games found that in a majority of cases, teams lose when playing on home ice. Voyer says that at regular levels of play, there's not as much pressure at home and teams can perform optimally. But when there's more at stake, when players sense anxiety at home for a great performance, they become acutely aware of every pass, every shot, every stride down the ice.

 That may be why Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson says it's clear to him after nine years in the NHL just how difficult it is to win the Stanley Cup.

 "The chance to get up two nothing in the other team's rink is a great opportunity," he said yesterday. "But we take it game by game."

 Voyer suggests there isn't a wide margin between the loss-and-win ratio his research reveals, but he says teams generally lose championship games on home ice 60% of the time.

 Empirical data aside, Leafs coach Pat Quinn suggests the pressure in this series will mount the closer one team gets to four wins -- regardless of where the teams are playing.

 "Look, when you've gotta win," the frank-spoken Quinn said, "it's hard as hell."

 We know, Pat. This is Ottawa.

 In 2000, the Leafs eliminated the Sens in Game 6 at the Corel Centre. In 2001, Alfie and the boys lost the first two games of the quarter-finals in Ottawa, then immediately bowed twice more in Toronto.

 PAINFUL MEMORIES

 In 2002 -- as painful as the memory is for some -- the Senators stunned the Leafs with a 5-0 series-opening win in Toronto, but lost two of the three subsequent games played in Ottawa, and were booted in seven.

 So what's the lesson on the eve of a two-game Sens home stand in this series? If it isn't "get it back to T.O.," it should be "relax while the boys are in town."

 Because if hockey's a science, home town fans can be an experiment gone wrong. And there's little peace in the alternative to winning this thing; Voyer's research findings apply to other sports, too, including baseball, basketball, football and, yes, even that balm for the wounded hockey spirit -- golf.


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