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Starkey: In Pens? favor, a road-ice advantage

| Sunday, April 15, 2012

Maybe the Penguins have the Flyers right where they want them: in Philadelphia.

OK, maybe not. Maybe the Flyers will continue to score touchdowns at an alarming rate as the series heads east.

But stick with me for a minute.

Jaromir Jagr joked last week about home-ice "disadvantage." There was truth in his jest — league-wide and within the parameters of this series.

The Penguins can't beat the Flyers at Consol Energy Center, and the Flyers were better on the road than at home this season. Home teams overall started 4-7 in the playoffs.

Will the Flyers revert to a mindlessly chippy style in front of their frothing fans?

Will they feel compelled to go for 10 goals instead of only eight?

Veteran winger Scott Hartnell insists his team will keep its cool. We'll find out this afternoon, when the testosterone starts flowing and the sadistic scoreboard clips start showing at Wells Fargo Center.

Philly's Colosseum-like ambiance tends to feed the monster, forcing the Flyers to live down to their historically barbaric ways.

Series star Claude Giroux was asked if he worries about the dynamic changing at home.

"Yes," he said. "The whole year, we did a good job keeping it simple (on the road). We feel comfortable on the road."

The Penguins, to a man, insist they don't need to change a thing, save for correcting careless errors.

Delusional• Perhaps. But they'll likely have no choice: Switching venues should change things for them.

Road teams tend to employ a patient, opportunistic style in response to home teams playing to the crowd. Expect the Penguins to set some traps in hopes of capitalizing on the Flyers' home-cooked adrenaline.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma on Saturday reiterated that he uses a 1-2-2 trap. You just wouldn't know it from the first two games because his team constantly launched seek-and-destroy missions in the Flyers' end, even with a late lead.

The only team that has effectively slowed the pace with a lead was the Flyers late in Game 2.

Meanwhile, what the heck happened to home-ice advantage in the playoffs• If you remember when it mattered, you're old.

In 1976, home teams won 35 of 48 games, good for 73 percent, slightly above the norm at the time.

"In the 1970s and 80s, more often than not, home teams won at least 60 percent," said Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau. "That has changed."

Has it ever. The last time home teams hit 60 percent was 1993. Since then, Waterman said, the average is a little more than 50 percent. Which is incredible, given that home coaches have the enormous advantage of last-line change.

Why the dramatic drop• My highly unscientific poll uncovered three answers:

1. Cookie-cutter venues.

2. Parity.

3. Systems overload.

Longtime Flyers forward-turned-broadcaster Bill Clement chose No. 3.

"The game is driven by system now as opposed to emotion," Clement said. "Teams prepare and very matter-of-factly execute their system on the road. Xs and Os are a far greater factor today."

Clement cited league parity, too. And it's true. Superpowers have disappeared.

So has the quaint notion of "adversity on the road." What you see are sterilized and standardized arenas, replete with freshly vacuumed rugs and spacious lockers to greet the visitors.

What's next, fruit baskets at every stall?

Penguins broadcaster Bob Errey remembers when stepping into an opposing dressing room was enough to make him gag.

"In Chicago, you went down all these stairs, and the room itself was steaming, like you were in a boiler room," Errey said. "In Boston, the windows were cracked, and it was ice cold."

How about Philadelphia's old Spectrum?

"Long walk to the ice," Errey said. "A death march."

In those days, rinks did not conform to specific dimensions. Some buildings had compacted playing surfaces. Visiting teams literally were cornered. Players felt as if fans were breathing on them.

No more.

"If you've played in one of the (modern arenas), you've played in all," Clement said. "That element of intimidation is not there anymore."

Not even in Philadelphia, where the Penguins once went 15 years without a victory. They are 8-2-1 in their past 11 trips to the City of Brotherly Shove.

So maybe, just maybe, they have the Flyers right where they want them.

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