Lose at home advantage hits Jets
When is home-ice advantage not really an advantage at all?
When you're the Janesville Jets, and you play in the North American Hockey League in the same division as a team from Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Jets spent the regular season cruising past their five rivals in the league's Midwest Division. At 42-13-1-4 (89 points), they finished 20 points clear of second-place Fairbanks, seemingly wrapping up home-ice advantage through the divisional portion of the playoffs.
Yet here we are in the division finals, and the Jets find themselves with a scheduling situation that, at best, is simply confusing to fans, and at its worst gives home-ice advantage to the second place team.
How does that make sense? How does that even happen?
Well, the long-distance travel certainly throws a wrench into things.
The division format is a best-of-five series. Typically, the first two games of those series take place at the site of the team with the best seed coming out of the regular season. Then Games 3 and 4, if necessary, are hosted by the lower seed the next weekend. If a series goes five games, the teams are close enough geographically to make a quick turnaround for a Game 5 back at the higher seed's rink within a day or so of Game 4.
The playoffs pretty much work just like those in the NHL. Makes sense.
Until the two NAHL teams are separated by thousands of miles. Then there are decisions to make, and none of them seem like a winning situation for a team that rightfully earned a home-ice advantage.
For example, Fairbanks, which finished second in the division, opted in the first round to play the first two games of its series at third-place Minnesota. Fairbanks won both road games then returned home and won at home for the sweep. That's great for the team's outlook at winning a second straight Robertson Cup, but it cost the organization one game's worth of revenue because it should have hosted at least two first-round games.
The Jets could have gone the same route this time but decided not to take the gambles that come with that.
“We're traveling all the way up there to play them. We're going to be the team that's at the disadvantage first,” Dibble said of that option. “And then, hypothetically, worst-case scenario, we come back here down 0-2 and only get one game. Or we come back up 2-0 and only get one game and it hurts us financially.”
Now, though, the only way the Jets can host three of the five games is if they lose a home game.
If they win Games 1 and 2 at the Janesville Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday, they'll head to Alaska next weekend. There, Fairbanks could potentially win three home games and advance to the Roberston Cup Championship.
But if the Jets lose the first or second game—or both—they get to host Game 3 Sunday before going to Fairbanks next weekend for one or two games.
In either scenario, the Jets are going to be forced to win a road game to win the series. The last time I checked, that is the opposite of home-ice advantage.
There's no perfect solution. It wouldn't make sense fiscally or within the schedule to fly back and forth to Alaska all over again.
But the current format seems to penalize the team that finished higher in the standings, which definitely doesn't feel right.
Dibble proposes that the higher-seeded team should get to host the first three games. In that case, a sweep would leave the lower-seeded team without getting even a single home game, but at least that wouldn't penalize the division champ.
“We earned it, we won the division,” Dibble said. “Or if they earned it (in a different season, they got it.”
The Jets earned an advantage over the course of a grueling 60-game season that began back on Sept. 16.
Hopefully the NAHL takes future action to make sure teams get what they deserve.
Eric Schmoldt is the sports editor of The Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last updated: 8:03 pm Wednesday, April 26, 2017