With seconds to go in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final and the Pittsburgh Penguins down 4-1 to the Nashville Predators, NBC’s Mike Emrick imparted a nugget of clichéd wisdom.
“The NHL is 100 years old. The adage is probably that old: You’re never in trouble until you lose a home game.”
That is the saying in sports, or some variation therein. The Stanley Cup Final doesn’t start until the home team loses a game, and so through four games, this series hasn’t even begun.
In a lot of ways, the Penguins probably wish the series hadn’t started yet. Outplayed in each of the first two games at home, the Pens were lucky Predators goalie Pekka Rinne chose the Stanley Cup to have his worst two games of the playoffs.
In Game 1, the Penguins had 12 shots and five went in. In Game 2, the Pens were outshot 38-27 and outplayed almost the entire night, but Rinne had a woeful start to the third period, giving up three goals in three-and-a-half minutes before being pulled for the remainder of that 4-1 loss.
Down 0-2 but back at home, Nashville rode the energy of the crowd to two blowout wins, despite the fact the Penguins actually played better than they did in Pittsburgh.
To review: A 5-3 win, in which the Penguins were mostly outplayed. A 4-1 win: they were outplayed in for two periods. A 5-1 loss: they played much better, and a 4-1 loss: they played pretty darn well, were it not for the resurgence of Rinne.
In Nashville, Rinne was electric, making 50 saves on 52 shots and standing on his head — sometimes literally — through both Preds wins. After an admittedly soft first goal to Jake Guentzel in Game 3, the only puck Rinne has let past him was this breakaway by Sidney Crosby in Game 4.
Who in the NHL is going to stop that?
And so, as the series shifts back to Pittsburgh, the question now becomes which Rinne will we see in Game 5?
“I feel like we should go there with a lot of confidence, play our game, use our speed and play the same way we play at home,” Rinne told NBC’s Pierre McGuire after the game. “We all should feel pretty comfortable. It’s a tough building, and they’re a good team, but I like our chances.”
He should like their chances the way the team is playing, and that would be very bad for the Penguins, because the Predators are 9-1 in 10 games at home in the playoffs this season. The Penguins are 9-3 at the Paint Can this postseason, having won their last five, but if they lose Game 5 at home, the Cup could be out of reach.
The silver lining for the Pens is that they’re 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final at home despite playing poorly for long stretches in both games. They really can’t play much worse than they did in those games, so even if they expect Rinne to play better, they should also expect to play better themselves. And if home ice is an advantage in a seven-game series, it’s even that much more important in a three-game set.
The team who wins two of the next three games gets a parade, and Pittsburgh has two of those games at home.
And yet — yep, you knew there was an and yet coming, didn’t you — home ice in the Stanley Cup Final hasn’t meant all that much in the last decade or so. Over the last 11 seasons, since the 2005 lockout, teams with home ice advantage in the Cup have won six times, losing five. And of those six teams that had home ice and won, four did it in six games, meaning the Stanley Cup was hoisted on the road. (The other two were five-game series.)
The last two times a team won the Cup without home ice, they won in six games. At home.
The last three times the Stanley Cup Final went seven games — 2011, 2009 and 2006 — it was the road team winning the championship.
The Pens still have home ice, yes. But they better win Game 5 Thursday night, or it might not matter.