Friday June 12th, 2009

You've probably heard a lot of crazy stats being tossed around prior to tonight's all-or-nothing Game 7. My favorite? That no road team has captured a Game 7 to win the championship of any major sport since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.

That's fun stuff to fill the interminable hours between now and the 8 pm start. But a bit of advice: Forget it. All that stuff that Pops Stargell did back in '79 or the Wings did back in 1955? Ancient history. None of those stats you're hearing mean a thing.

Except for these: When the NHL championship is decided, it'll happen at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings have won 11 of 12 playoff games this spring, including all three in this series.

You want hospitality? Look elsewhere. But if you're looking for the one indicator that best reveals how this thing might play out, that record of recent dominance says it all. And that's why the Penguins are in deep, deep trouble heading into this contest. As good as they've been at times in this series, even for stretches in the Motor City, they've yet to figure out how to topple these Wings on their home turf. And that's what this series has come down to.

That's not to say Pittsburgh can't win. But for Sidney Crosby & Co. to unlock the mysteries of the Joe, they need more than a few tumblers to fall into place. They need to put up a lot of shots ("Forty-plus would be a great recipe," said Pens coach Dan Byslma). It's vital to get that first goal. They need to maintain their discipline and stay out of the box. And maybe most important, Marc-Andre Fleury must outplay Chris Osgood.

That's a lot to ask for. Especially since all the Wings need to do before drenching each other in bubbly is to make themselves at home.

In this series, home ice has been the difference. Whether it's mom's cooking, raucous fans, friendly bounces or the last change, playing at the JLA has given the Wings a sense of invulnerability. Red Wings hockey can happen anywhere, but it appears in its purest, most undiluted form at home.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock said as much during his press conference on Thursday.

"We've been way better at home, way more comfortable, way quicker, way more assertive. We look forward to that again [Friday]."

No kidding.

Three times the Pens have ventured into JLA this spring. For their efforts, they skated away with two goals. Total. Meanwhile, the comfortable, quicker, more assertive Wings have strafed them for 11. And it's not just this time around. Including last year's final series, the Penguins have been outscored 21-6 while averaging just 26.5 shots a game.

You say the Law of Averages suggests the Pens have to win one (or the Red Wings lose one) eventually? Maybe, but have Bylsma's Boys done anything in their previous trips to the Joe to suggest the odds are 1:4?

More to the point, has Detroit given any hint it may be vulnerable?

At home, the Wings find a way to enforce their will. To dictate the style of play. The line-matching ability that comes with last change plays a big part in that. When Babcock is able to tap Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Henrik Zetterberg any time Crosby even sniffs the ice, it becomes apparent why the Pittsburgh superstar has been silenced for much of the series.

But there's also an indefinable something. Babcock referenced assertiveness, and that may be it. Watch the Wings when they attack. They punch it right down the middle, drawing defenders in and freeing up space along the boards, allowing the wingers to head to the net with purpose. Sure, they'll do that on the road, too. But it's more effective more often at the Joe.

"I think we're just more confident at home," Lidstrom has said. "We know what we're supposed to do and we execute better."

Their veteran experience also allows them to handle the pressures of home ice effectively. Where some squads might be inclined to amp up the entertainment factor to keep the paying customers happy, the Wings are a relaxed, professional squad. They stay within themselves.

And maybe it's not just about the Wings and their comfort zone. The Pens simply might be out of theirs. In playing a more traditionally conservative road style, they've been far less forceful in establishing their physical presence in the previous games in Detroit -- the very element that's defined their success in the contests at Mellon Arena. That's translated to less puck possession time and fewer offensive chances.

And there's no denying that Fleury doesn't have to reach too far to top his best efforts at the Joe. Maybe he's thinking too much about those flubbery kick plates and how the crazy bounces they sometimes produce exploit his mobility as a butterfly goaltender. Maybe it's his over-aggressive crease positioning in reaction to Detroit's more effective net presence. Whatever the case, he's spent more time flopping and floundering at the Joe than at Mellon . . .and that's cost him.

When the season started, the Red Wings knew they'd be returning to the playoffs. They played 82 games with an eye on grabbing home ice advantage when it mattered. They earned it just for a night like tonight.

Don't expect them to squander it.

ELIOT: Penguins battling Wings and history

FARBER: The joys of a Stanley Cup Game 7

GALLERY: NHL's great Game 7s

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