With thousands of fans screaming at the top of their lungs, waving rally towels and pounding their palms on the plexiglass boards, a hockey crowd can be so hostile that it creates a distinct home-ice advantage.
“You feel like you don’t have much room out there on the ice,” Golden Knights forward James Neal said. “You feel like the fans are on top of you and then your hands aren’t good and your legs aren’t moving.”
A capacity crowd of 18,191 rocked T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday during the Golden Knights home opener, and is expected to continue to do so for the team’s seven-game home stand, including 7:30 p.m. tonight against Detroit.
“That crowd was unbelievable,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “They were noisy all night long and looked like they were having a great time. Obviously when you score four goals in seven or eight minutes, it gives them a lot to cheer about, so hopefully we can keep playing that way.”
Off to the best start by an expansion team in NHL history (3-0-0), the Golden Knights have a chance to build on that as they host Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado through Oct. 27.
It will be tough to match the opening period on Tuesday night, when the Golden Knights followed up a heart-felt tribute to victims and heroes of the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip with the best 10 minutes of hockey they’ve played. Vegas raced out to a 4-0 lead before the Coyotes could catch their breath.
“When teams can draw off their home crowd, it’s very hard to play against,” Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “That was really tough for (Arizona). At that point the way everything was going it just seemed like it was meant for us.”
Only three teams in the NHL finished with a worse record at home than on the road last season. The Washington Capitals won 80 percent of their home games but only 62.5 percent on the road. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ difference was even more drastic, winning 79.5 percent at home and only 52.6 on the road.
“When you’re playing at home in front of your own fans, it gives you a big boost,” Neal said. “You want to play well in front of them. When you’re doing good things out there and they start to feed off them you can hear it.”
With its steep upper deck, T-Mobile Arena maximizes the home-ice advantage. Neal, who watched the preseason games from the stands as he nursed an injury, witnessed it firsthand.
“When I watched the game as a fan the building looked really big, but then when you’re on the ice I was surprised how compact it feels,” he said. “I was really surprised when I skated out for warm-ups and the fans were right on top of you.”
The deafening noise can shake the nerves of some players.
“Things seem to be happening a little bit quicker,” Golden Knights defenseman Jason Garrison said. “You can feel the energy from the crowd. You can hear the buzz when something is about to happen. Sometimes you’ll be in a tight situation and you don’t know what’s going to happen then you’ll hear the buzz and you know something is coming.”
Other than the added energy it can supply its players, there aren’t many other benefits to playing in front of a home crowd.
“It gets loud sometimes, even for the home coach,” Gallant said. “It can be tough to yell at your players for line changes, but we love it.”
It’s part of the reason the NHL has the lowest difference between home and away records of the four major sports. While there is some communication between coaches and players, it’s not as significant as in sports like football and basketball.
“For me it’s always fun,” Schmidt said. “I love a good crowd no matter where you’re at, but sometimes it gets hostile and the other team is feeding off it and that’s when it gets hard.”
It makes for a 60-minute battle for opposing players, and a sanctuary for the home team.
“I remember sitting on the bench after the second period and just sitting there for a second taking it all in,” Schmidt said. “I can’t remember if it was Garrison or Deryk Engelland that walked by but they were like, ‘Hey the period is over.’ I didn’t even realize it had ended because I was just taking in the moment. It was such an awesome event and one of the more fun games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing in.”