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Game 3: Will Regular Season Lessons and Home Ice Advantages Prove Meaningful?

Apr 15, 2012, 10:49 AM EDT

As the Philadelphia Flyers host the Pittsburgh Penguins in game 3 of their playoff series, a look at the ways in which the regular season and playing on home ice matter—or don't.
We’ve discussed it here before, a certain reality we’d almost rather not know… 
The NHL’s regular season is little more than a really long, entertaining preseason war of attrition. If a team doesn’t make the 16-slot playoffs in the NHL, it had an extremely poor chance to win a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the parity among teams that do make it can be staggering. Without getting into some existential debate on the relative meaningless of all things, let alone sports, we watch the regular season simply because we love hockey, our local team, and the players that make it up at any given time. So I’m not taking anything away from our time spent watching, analyzing, debating, and enjoying the 82 games that spanned from October to April. But so little of it matters once the playoffs begin. Or does it…?
You can say they’re playing for home ice, for seeding, for experience as a team in understanding their strengths and weakness and those of their opponents. I increasingly feel that only the latter really means much once the second season begins. An eighth seed is up 2-0 in the Western Conference. The Flyers are up 2-0 after a pair of games in a frenzied, hostile building. Home ice often means nothing when it comes to the outcomes of games despite player proclamations to the contrary. 
With the series set to resume in Philadelphia this afternoon, can the Flyers find an advantage that the Penguins could not in Pittsburgh?  

Home ice is a reward for fans and franchises, particularly if the series goes the seven-game distance. For those fortunate enough to have a ticket into the building today, just getting dressed and driving to the Wells Fargo Center, having a few beverages with friends, sharing the playoff atmosphere with your kid for the first time, and seeing the place lit up in that glowing orange will be a transcendent experience. 

For everyone from season ticket holders to casual-fan friends of corporations with catered suites, the feel of the building during the playoffs is completely different. In the regular season, the realities of the long 41-game schedule are more apparent than we want to admit. The building feels big, at times hollow. Every seat isn’t quite as filled as attendance reports might indicate on some nights. But once the playoffs begin, it’s like the building has been dropped out of a huge plane, and everyone’s reality outside of it is suspended amidst an adrenaline rush that lasts for a few hours. The game is the only reality that exists. The camaraderie among the orange-clad masses is more palpable. The hatred of the opponent even more so. As soon as you enter the gate, you can see, hear, and feel it. 
For 60 minutes, the chants are louder, particularly if it’s a close game or one decidedly in favor of the Flyers. If they win… The chants as fans file down the stairs and elevators can give you that feeling in your ears where it’s like you temporarily lose hearing. 
It really doesn’t get any better. 
It’s a different story if they lose… one the folks out in Pittsburgh can recount with painful detail. It’s also a different story on the ice. The Penguins seemed to be playing with one perceived advantage of being on home ice—getting out to early leads and “keeping the building in the game.” The Flyers were completely unfazed though, taking their first period beatings only to assume the bully role sometime in the second period. 
Today we’ll watch to see if the Flyers—who were better on the road than at home in each of the past two seasons and haven’t always played well in afternoon starts—can put together an effort that obviates all elements that are outside of the game itself. 
We all enjoyed Lavvy’s tirade after the Flyers got off to another slow start in game 2. And, they’re up 2-0 despite continuing a regular season trend everyone said would sink them if still present in the playoffs. But we wouldn’t mind seeing a hot start for a change, even if this team’s identity and winning formula seems to be the Comeback Kids. 
How long can they keep that up? Are the Pens strong enough to clamp down once they get a lead, or is their defense and goaltending simply unable to withstand the Flyers attack for a full 60 (or more) minutes?
Hopefully the building is a factor in a huge game 3 win. Sidney Crosby-led teams have fared well in Philly, our ill-conceived “Crosby Sucks” chants seemingly having an effect not unlike earth’s yellow sun on the son of Jor-El. But lately, the Flyers haven’t been affected by the Pittsburgh captain’s stellar play early in games. On Friday, he scored 15 seconds in but was victimized later in the game. Are the Flyers finally in his head? I wouldn’t bet on it. They may not need to be in order to win though.
To continue winning in the playoffs, the Flyers need to continue making their regular season experience meaningful. In 82 games, six of which were against Pittsburgh, the Flyers learned that no matter what the Penguins throw at them, it is surmountable. The Penguins are strong but flawed—strong enough to win a pair of games in Philly and flawed enough to be swept out. 
In the first two games of the series, we saw that over the course of the regular season, a young, untested group had become seasoned and fearless. They’re playing the team heavily favored to win it all, and they’re winning. Rookies are sneering in the faces of superstars. Gritty players are mocking diving in their counterparts. The passion of a coach who climbed on top of the dasher boards in anger is flowing into every forward line and defensive pairing. 
If you’re headed to South Philly, enjoy one of the greatest parts of being a Philadelphia sports fan. If you’ve never been to a Flyers playoff game, this is your annual full-throated recommendation to change that. 
Today should be one hell of a battle. 
Photo the Igloo’s remains by Ryan Lawrence of the Delco Times.