The Penguins have the Tampa Bay Lightning players right where they want 'em. Back home on the tropical Florida Suncoast. In their loud rink. In front of their rabid fans.
It sure beats playing Game 6 at Consol Energy Center.
If this throbbing first-round Stanley Cup playoff series holds form, the Penguins will beat Tampa Bay tonight and shut the Lightning down for the season. The visiting team has won four of the five games. The Penguins are 2-0 in the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning is 2-1 in Pittsburgh.
It has been that way virtually all over hockey during these playoffs. Set aside the Washington Capitals-New York Rangers series in which the home team went 4-1. In the other seven first-round series going into Sunday's games, the away teams were 23-11.
So much for home-ice advantage.
"We're all scratching our heads trying to figure out what's going on," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said.
It would be inaccurate to say the Penguins welcome the chance to get back on the road. Of course they preferred to wrap up the series at home Saturday. You might have heard that didn't turn out so well. But they will show up tonight. I know that. And they won't be afraid even after taking an 8-2 spanking from the Lightning in Game 5.
"It's easier on the road to be focused," winger Mike Rupp said. "You're consumed. You're playing in an arena that's hostile and you know if you don't respond the right way it will be really ugly.
"You tend to get a little more jazzed up playing at home. You might look for a hit and get out of position. Or you try to make a pretty play rather than just the simple play.
"On the road, it just seems like you play your game."
Boucher claims to be no "brighter than the next guy." Like Rupp, he said the home team has a tendency of "trying to do a show for your fans." But he had another theory about the road teams' success that made more sense than anything I've heard.
"Everybody says you've got to win your games at home," Boucher said. " 'You're at home.' It puts pressure on you to absolutely win at home. It might make you play a little tight. I know that's the way it was for us in the two games at home. The first period wasn't the way we like to play our game."
The Penguins scored twice in the first 6:31 of Game 3 to take a 2-0 lead and won, 3-2. They scored twice in the first 22:39 of Game 4 to go up 2-0 and won, 3-2, in double overtime. The team that has scored first has won every game of the series.
Boucher knows the Lightning will get the Penguins' best tonight. But he's more concerned with his team. "We've got to reload real quick." Boucher is anxious to see how the Lightning will react after its blowout win Saturday. He didn't like how it responded after it beat the Penguins, 5-1, in Game 2 at Consol Energy Center. As winger Simon Gagne put it, "We might have gotten a little bit too comfortable."
"There are no smiles, no nothing," Boucher said of the mood in the Tampa Bay locker room after Game 5.
And no, he wasn't smiling.
"Last time we came here, we felt it," Boucher said. "We made the mistake of being a young group of individuals and totally not knowing how to manage the playoffs yet. Of being happy to win the game. Right now, we're not happy to win the game. We just want to move on and get ready for the next game. We've changed our attitude. Hopefully, it will change the result."
It's worth repeating here:
The Penguins will show up, and they won't be afraid.
They were a strong road team all season, going 24-11-6, tying the franchise record for away wins set by the 1992-93 team. They also know another statistical trend is on their side. Under coach Dan Bylsma, they are 5-1 when they have a chance to clinch a playoff series on the road. The loss came in Game 6 in Montreal in the second round last season.
You might remember what happened in Game 7 at Mellon Arena, the final game played in the grand old building.
Canadiens 5, Penguins 2.
That gave the Penguins an 0-4 record in clinching opportunities at home under Bylsma. The loss Saturday made it 0-5.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
The Penguins had better win tonight.
Correction/Clarification: (Published April 26, 2011) A story on Monday incorrectly stated the Tampa Bay Lightning's record at Consol Energy Center for its first-round playoff series with the Penguins. Tampa Bay is 2-1 in games played at the arena.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.