TAMPA — The Lightning had the opportunity to earn home ice for their first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers with a regulation win in either of their final two regular-season games against the Panthers. But they lost both games, by a combined 9-1.
But in today’s NHL, maybe the importance of home ice is inflated — especially this season, with arenas at limited capacities due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes, there’s something about being able to play a decisive Game 7 at home in the postseason. But a lot of series never get that far, and sometimes there’s more pressure for a home team to perform in its own building in such situations.
Before the Lightning won last year’s Stanley Cup with no fans in the stands in bubble environments in Toronto and Edmonton, they had home ice throughout the postseason in 2018-19 but were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Lightning lost three of their four regular-season road games against the Panthers by a combined 15-9, though they were depleted by injuries in their last two games at BB&T Center.
“I’ve been a part of playoff series that we’ve won when we’ve had home ice, and I’ve been a part of playoff series that we’ve lost with home ice,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So it’s not a big deal to us. We know what we have to do to win a series, and I don’t think it’s going to come down to whatever team has home-ice advantage.”
When Lightning forward Pat Maroon won the Stanley Cup with the Blues, St. Louis had home-ice advantage for just one series. They went 10-3 on the road during the postseason and won three of four away from home — including a decisive Game 7 — in the Stanley Cup final against Boston.
“I’m a firm believer if you feel confident and you have road success all year and you feel confident on the road, you’re gonna have success,” Maroon said. “It depends, but I just feel like a home advantage, I don’t think it’s there anymore. I think teams just go out there and play. I think away teams actually feel, like, the crowd and energy in the other barn. Maybe it’s more electric and they get more pumped up for it than they would at home.”
This postseason marks just the fifth time the Panthers have had home-ice advantage in a playoff series. They lost three of the previous four, their only win coming in a five-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Bruins on their way to the only Stanley Cup final berth in franchise history.
While this year’s Lightning team played better at home (21-7-0) than on the road (15-10-3), defenseman Victor Hedman said he’s looking forward to the road atmosphere in the playoffs after not having it last season.
“Going into Florida. you want to have that hostile environment going in,” Hedman said. “You want to get booed, because that means that you’re doing something right. That’s what makes sports great, I think, is to have that element of playing in front of fans. It’s not going to be sold out, but it’s certainly gonna be loud.”
Neither team will have a full building, but both are increasing capacity for their first-round home games. Amalie Arena will be filled to 37-percent capacity — or about 7,000 fans — which is up from 4,200 at the end of the regular season. Capacity at BB&T Center will be at just under 50 percent, or 9,000-10,000 fans.
With the teams being so close to each other, visiting fans surely will travel to games on the road. When the Lightning played their first series this season in Sunrise, Amalie Arena hadn’t yet opened to fans, so many fans traveled from Tampa to watch their team for the first time since it won the Cup.
“It’s only, what, a three-hour drive or something to Tampa?” Florida forward Mason Marchment said. “So I’m sure both both games are going to be kind of full of each other’s fans and stuff like that. So it’ll be fun. I don’t think too much into it. I don’t know about other guys, but you’ve got to play the game no matter where it is.”
Florida was one of three NHL teams to open the season with fans in the stands. Since then, every team has started to allow spectators inside its buildings to varying capacities. So though not to the extent as in past postseason, fans again will be part of the atmosphere.
“I think I almost took it for granted until we were in Chicago (on April 27) with no fans, and then you really feel that emptiness in the building,” said Lightning forward Blake Coleman. “It’s just a little bit of a different atmosphere, a different feeling.
“For a player like myself that thrives on energy and high-intensity games, things like that, it makes a big difference. I would expect the noise level and intensity to keep rising as the playoffs come up here and in all the way through, and I’m excited.”
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