Protecting home ice could decide NHL's conference finals
CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Blackhawks have a sellout streak of 323 games and counting. The New York Rangers play in the world's most famous arena, and the Anaheim Ducks are undefeated at home in the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning set a franchise record with an NHL-best 32 home wins this season.
Welcome to the NHL's final four, where one road win could go a long way.
Fresh off a Game 7 victory over Washington at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers host the Lightning on Saturday in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals. In the West, the Ducks put their perfect home playoff record on the line in Sunday's Game 1 against the Blackhawks, who also are 5-0 at home in the postseason.
''It's been a good run so far at home, but every round gets harder,'' Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said Thursday.
The four remaining teams are a combined 19-5 at home this postseason. The home team is 42-27 in this year's NHL playoffs for a winning percentage of .609 that ranks ahead of last year (56-37, .602), though way below the remarkable 59-27 home record for the 2013 playoffs after the season was shortened because of labor strife.
Of course, players credit their fans for success at home, but the NHL also gives home teams the last line change after play is stopped, and last stick on the ice for faceoffs. Savvy coaches use the last line change to get the matchups they want at critical moments, and the advantage for faceoffs can produce extra possessions or help clear the puck from the defensive zone at the end of a frantic shift.
''This time of year, especially against a team's top line, you want to be able to get the right people on the ice at that moment, but when it goes down from there, you can see people playing against anybody,'' Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. ''It's not a huge thing that Bruce is preaching, but I think it still is a factor for us in the first couple of games.''
There also is a pronounced advantage for faceoffs. Each of the four remaining teams is better at the dot at home compared to the road, with Tampa Bay posting the biggest split at 53.1 percent at Amalie Arena and 47.8 percent in road playoff games. The next biggest difference is 4.9 points for New York (46.8 percent at home, compared to 41.9 percent on the road), and then Chicago (53.7 and 49.1) and Anaheim (56.7 and 53.9), according to STATS.
Give stars such as Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos or New York forward Rick Nash more time with the puck, and good things happen for their teams.
Seeking their third Stanley Cup title in the last six seasons, the Blackhawks have won 24 of their last 28 home playoff games. With Joel Quenneville behind the bench and a deep group of forwards taking the ice, they are uniquely positioned to make the most of the rules for home games, but captain Jonathan Toews thinks the crowd is the biggest reason for home success in the NHL.
''When you play well and you create things and things are going your way, the crowd's behind you,'' he said. ''I think it adds to the fact of trying to take away momentum, take away energy from the other team. Everyone wants that, especially in the playoffs.''
But Chicago needs at least one road win to move on, and top-seeded Anaheim is 11-3 at the Honda Center since Feb. 27. The Ducks outscored the Jets and Flames 18-6 at home while beginning the playoffs with eight wins in nine games.
''We also feel confident playing on the road,'' Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said. ''We know Anaheim's going to be a tough place to play, but we've gone there and won before. Hopefully we can do it again.''
New York's 2-1 overtime win against Washington on Wednesday night was the Rangers' fifth victory in seven home playoffs games this year. They also improved to 7-0 at home in Game 7.
The Lightning needed a Game 7 home win against Detroit to escape the first round, and coach Jon Cooper said that is where home ice provides the biggest advantage. Home teams are 94-65 in Game 7s in the Stanley Cup playoffs, including 3-0 this year.
''I do think it matters in Game 7, and that's why you want it,'' Cooper said. ''I think that's the one game that home ice can matter.''
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall and AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham contributed to their report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap