Teams play all season for home advantage in playoffs, but in the IHL semifinal between Salt Lake and Milwaukee that starts Wednesday night in the Salt Palace, being home may not be all that big a deal.
Golden Eagle center Randy Bucyk said, "In this series, I don't think home ice will play as key a role as it would against a Kalamazoo or Muskegon."The Eagles never won in Muskegon this season and won only once at Kalamazoo.
But at Milwaukee, they won four times. And the Admirals won three times, two in overtime, in the Salt Palace.
"We play well in their building, and they play well in ours," Bucyk said. "They're very similar buildings. The ice surfaces are the same size, and both facilities are easy to play in."
This best-of-seven semifinal, which starts at 7 p.m. and continues with Game 2 Friday at 7 p.m. in the Palace, pits Salt Lake's two-time defending Turner Cup champions, 56-22-4 in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs, against the 54-23-5/4-2 Admirals.
The Eagles had the second-best home record in the IHL, 34-4-3. Milwaukee had the third-best home mark, 32-7-2. On the road, Milwaukee was 22-16-3 and the Eagles 22-18-1.
"Neither team is a homer," said Milwaukee Coach Rick Ley. "Both teams have proved they can win on the road, and both have proved they can win at home."
Some of the times his club lost at home, said Ley, may have been due to the huge crowds, 13,000+, Milwaukee drew. His players wanted to put on a show.
The Eagles have been guilty of that, too, though not lately - they haven't lost at home in their last 14 games and are 21-1 in the Palace since Jan. 25.
Eagle Coach Paul Baxter said, "The home advantage is probably over-rated, especially in a 2-3-2 series."
Baxter figures the only real aid is in Game 1, when teams are trying to establish the tone for the series - line matchups, game plans. The home team gets the last line change. "It's an opportunity to get the match-ups you want," he said. "If I'm getting the right people on the ice at the right time, that can be an advantage."
Both coaches change line personnel fairly often. Perhaps to keep Baxter on his toes while he and Eagle captain Rich Chernomaz scouted Milwaukee's Tuesday Palace practice, Ley had his players wear different jersey numbers than they do in games.
Though these two teams haven't played each other in more than seven weeks, and Milwaukee has had numerous personnel changes since, Baxter and Chernomaz had the names pretty well figured out.
"I'd say we've got a bit of a different look," said Ley.
He added that at the beginning of the season, when Milwaukee led the league, it won in spite of itself at times. "We were very fortunate to win, but it's hard to straighten out your problems when you're winning," he said.
Among the newer Admirals are winger Jose Charbonneau, who's averaging nearly a point a game; center/winger Tim Lenardon, with 13 points in 21 games; and center Rob Murphy, 12 points in 14 games. Baxter's impressed with all three, especially since Murphy, just out of juniors, gives further depth at center. "All teams like to be strong there," said Ley.
"They have very clever guys at center," Baxter said, noting the top
two, Jeff Rohlicek and Dan Hodgson, who are tied as the Admirals' leading playoff scorers with eight points each. Jay Mazur, another center, has seven points and came on strong the second half of the season.
Chernomaz is the leading scorer in the Milwaukee-Salt Lake series with 22 points in 12 games. He's also +9, second to defenseman Rick Lessard (+10, tops in the series), and he's had a winning goal, three power-play goals, three short-handed goals, a game-winning assist, and a first goal against Milwaukee. Paul Ranheim (13 points in 11 games) has three first goals and five power-play goals, the series leader in both.
Though these teams respect each other and Eagle goalie Steve Guenette (24-5, 4-0 in playoffs) said, "I don't think there will be any kind of goon shows, one way or the other," physical presence will be in evidence.
"We're going to make sure it's rough right away," said Baxter. "That doesn't include retaliation, but we'll definitely initiate contact."
"Nobody's going to intimidate us," said Ley, who had five players with 200+ penalty minutes and one who was close during the regular season.
Eagles vs. Admirals
Oct. 7 at Milwaukee - Milwaukee 6, Salt Lake 5 (winning goal, Randy Boyd; winning goalie, Troy Gamble).
Nov. 2 at Milwaukee - Salt Lake 3, Milwaukee 2 (winning goal, Peter Lappin; winning goalie, Doug Dadswell).
Nov. 8 at Salt Lake - Salt Lake 3, Milwaukee 2 (winning goal, Theoren Fleury; winning goalie, Dadswell).
Nov. 10 at Salt Lake - Milwaukee 5, Salt Lake 3 (winning goal, Dan Hodgson; winning goalie, Frank Caprice).
Dec. 4 at Milwaukee - Salt Lake 4, Milwaukee 3 (winning goal, Rich Chernomaz; winning goalie, Dadswell).
Jan. 3 at Salt Lake - Milwaukee 5, Salt Lake 4 OT (winning goal, Jeff Rohlicek; winning goalie, Caprice).
Jan. 4 at Salt Lake - Milwaukee 5, Salt Lake 4 OTSO (winning shootout goal, John LeBlanc; winning goalie, Caprice).
Jan. 12 at Milwaukee - Milwaukee 6, Salt Lake 5 (winning goal, Jay Mazur; winning goalie, Gamble).
Jan. 20 at Milwaukee - Salt Lake 7, Milwaukee 3 (winning goal, Lappin; winning goalie, Steve Guenette).
Jan. 25 at Salt Lake - Salt Lake 5, Milwaukee 4 OT (winning goal, Dave Reierson; winning goalie, Guenette).
Jan. 27 at Salt Lake - Salt Lake 5, Milwaukee 0 (winning goal, Lappin; winning goalie, Guenette).
March 5 at Milwaukee - Salt Lake 4, Milwaukee 3 (winning goal, Marc Bureau; winning goalie, Guenette).
Salt Lake leads season series 7-5.