Home Advantage: Penguins hope to use Arena as a springboard into the playoffs
The Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury makes the save against the New York Islanders Thursday at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 3-1.
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It didn't seem like much of an advantage Dec. 13, when Ottawa steamrolled the Penguins by three goals at Mellon Arena.
Hard to see how it helped a lot Oct. 25, either, when Toronto spanked the Penguins, 5-2. Not much changed when New Jersey made off with two victories in a 10-day span in November, either.
But over the past few months, the Penguins have matured into one of the NHL's best home teams. And, in the process, established what looks to be a genuine home-ice advantage for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They enter the game at 7:38 p.m. today against Philadelphia -- their last of the regular season at Mellon Arena -- with a home record of 25-10-5, one of the best marks in team history.
While the Penguins must defeat the Flyers to match their home record from 2006-07, last season was one of just three times they've won 26 or more at Mellon Arena.
More important, the Penguins have done their best work there this season during the
second half. They have won seven games in a row at Mellon Arena, have taken at least one point out of 15 of their past 16 there and have just two regulation losses (18-2-3) in the past 23 after going 7-8-2 in the first 17.
"Obviously, we enjoy playing there, and we've had success playing there," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "For us, that translates into a definite advantage."
Beat the Flyers tonight and again Sunday in Philadelphia, and the Penguins will clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That would guarantee them home ice for as long as they survive in the first three rounds.
Home ice assures nothing, of course, but the benefits of playing there go beyond the tangible edges, like being allowed to make the last personnel change, spelled out in the NHL rules.
The team that enters a series knowing Game 7 would be played in friendly surroundings is guaranteed of going on the road just twice during that particular best-of-seven and knows going in that it might be able to avoid that second trip if it exploits having three of the first five games at home.
"It's a lot easier to stay at home," left winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "Everything is what you're used to. You don't have to stay at hotels, or catch a bus. But at the same time, you have to realize that it's not going to make you win games if you don't work hard."
Working hard is imperative; being able to manufacture goals helps, too, because just about every team gets a little more stingy once the playoff begin.
That hasn't been a problem lately for the Penguins, who have scored 31 times in their past six home games. They got seven goals in three of those.
Center Max Talbot offers a pretty basic explanation for the Penguins' spotty home record during the early months of the season -- "Our team was not as good as we are right now," he said -- but Ruutu believes there was a little more to it.
That the Penguins were beaten frequently because they'd spent too much time reading about how often they would be winning. And, more to the point, believing what they read.
"At the start of the year, we got caught up in the hype," Ruutu said. "We were supposed to walk all over everybody. We didn't work hard enough, and we weren't ready. Now, we kind of know what it takes."
Fan support is a staple of playing at home, and the Penguins have sold out every game at Mellon Arena for the first time. That backing, coach Michel Therrien believes, plays a meaningful role in what the Penguins accomplish at Mellon Arena.
"We feed off the crowd," he said. "Our fans bring a lot of emotion to our players. They're part of it."
Fickle as some fans can be, the Penguins usually don't sputter long enough for a significant portion of the crowd to turn on them.
"Maybe if you're struggling for 10 or 15 minutes of a period, you can feel the uneasiness in the building," Scuderi said. "But once you have a good shift or two, the fans get into the game, and the players feed of that. It's a big chain reaction."
One that's helped to carry the Penguins to the top of their conference and could take them a lot further in coming weeks if they maintain their focus and willingness to work.
"You start bad, and you could be down two games," Ruutu said. "You have to realize that. It's fun to start [a series] at home, but you have to use that to your advantage."
Home, Sweet Home
Best home teams in the NHL this season based on points earned (before last night)
6. N.Y. Rangers.....25.....13.....2.....52
Looking out for No. 1
The race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference
x-New Jersey Devils.....44.....95.....3
x - clinched playoff spot
First Published April 2, 2008 12:00 am