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Lightning changes its road ways in playoffs

 
Goalie Ben Bishop is mobbed after his 2-0 Game 7 win in New York that makes Tampa Bay 7-3 on the road in the playoffs.
Goalie Ben Bishop is mobbed after his 2-0 Game 7 win in New York that makes Tampa Bay 7-3 on the road in the playoffs.
Published June 8, 2015

CHICAGO

They will be surrounded by an angry sea of red and white.

They will be booed, cursed, mocked and jeered. They will be the unwelcomed guests of one of the best teams in hockey — a host that would rather greet them with an elbow to the chops than a pat on the back.

When the Lightning takes the ice tonight for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks at the United Center, it will enter one of the most inhospitable places in the National Hockey League.

And believe it or not, the Lightning is actually looking forward to such a visit.

It's not exactly breaking news that most NHL teams struggle on the road. Despite the best regular season in franchise history, the Lightning was no different than most teams. It won only 18 of 41 road games.

But during the playoffs, the Lightning has been a road warrior, winning seven of 10, including two games in Detroit, two in Montreal and three in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Only because of its success on the road is the Lightning where it is now, which is three victories away from the Stanley Cup. But if the Lightning hopes to win the Cup, it's going to have to win at least one more road game, and that one victory probably is going to have to happen either tonight or Wednesday in Game 4.

So what gives? What the heck has happened? How does a team that was so mediocre on the road during the regular season suddenly become so formidable in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the league?

"I think you're satisfied with a tight game on the road (more) than you are at home," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "Especially in the playoffs, we have found a way to keep it tight. … It has worked out so far."

In other words, when a team plays at home, it instinctively feels the need to put on a show, to entertain the home folks. On the road, it's all about winning, regardless of style.

There also are other theories for better road play, such as players are distracted at home by family, friends and the various daily obligations and errands that even hockey players aren't immune to. On the road, there is nothing to do aside from sleeping, eating and playing hockey.

But Lightning coach Jon Cooper might have the best explanation of all. Cooper wonders if regular-season numbers are skewed by factors other than how good teams are.

During the regular season, teams go on long road trips. There are back-to-back games, three games in four nights, five games in 10 nights. Even against bad teams, good teams find it difficult to win consistently on the road.

The point: Playing on the road during the regular season is a pain in the neck.

"On the road, it's different," Cooper said. "Especially where (the Lightning is) geographically, we're going on long road trips all the time."

The playoffs are different. Travel is easier. You go to a city and stay for four days, playing two games. There are rarely back-to-back games. There are breaks, time to catch your breath.

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Nevertheless, going into the postseason and throughout the playoffs, the Lightning has been reminded constantly about its poor road record.

"The one thing that I know going into the playoffs, there was so much talk about how bad we were on the road, I think our focus has changed," Cooper said. "I truly believe — if it makes any sense at all — that our poor record during the regular season kind of united our focus. I think that's why we play better on the road."

Just the other day, Lightning center Tyler Johnson was saying he thinks home ice means very little come playoff time. And the numbers back that up. Yes, the Lightning is an impressive 7-3 on the road during the postseason, but it is just 5-5 at home. And it was the best home team in the league this season.

Now, before the Lightning starts feeling good about this road business, here's some cold water: The Blackhawks are 8-1 at home in the postseason.

"It's definitely comforting coming back home now," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "We feel great in this building. We've had some big games here in these playoffs. There's nothing like coming home to play in front of your own fans. We'll try to use that to our advantage. I'm sure if there's a game to be ready for, it's definitely (tonight). I'm sure our crowd will help us get ready for that."

Ultimately, tonight's game won't be decided by where the ice is but what happens on that ice.

We won't know until this morning if the Lightning will have the services of goalie Ben Bishop, who is either sick or hurt or both.

We won't know until tonight if the Lightning can continue to shut down top Chicago stars Kane and Jonathan Toews.

We also won't know until tonight if Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford will give up more soft goals or bounce back with the type of performance that backstopped the Hawks to the Stanley Cup in 2013.

Tune in tonight to find out what happens. Tune in to see how the Lightning does. In case you're wondering, it will be the team being booed.