It's a funny thing about home-ice advantage and how it matters in some series more than others. Way back a couple of weeks ago against the San Jose Sharks, home ice wasn't much of an advantage to the Chicago Blackhawks. In fact, the Blackhawks were playing so much better on the road - seven wins in a row and counting - that they took the unusual step of checking into a local hotel to mimic the effects of the road. The road ruled! Jonathan Toews' video-game prowess was as much of a talking point as that 13-game scoring streak he piled up to lead the Blackhawks right into the Stanley Cup final.
That was then - and not so long ago either.
Now, in the heart of their series against the Philadelphia Flyers that is tied 2-2 heading into Sunday's fifth game, home-ice means all to Chicago. Home is where the heart is. Home is sweet. Home is the United Center and its crazy screaming fans, as crazy and as enervated as the 20,000 plus that peopled the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia and helped carry the Flyers to two consecutive victories.
Thus far, the Stanley Cup final has been what Flyers forward Ian Laperriere called a "homer" series the other night. This close to the finish line, the overriding sense is that the first team to crack at home is the one that will be going home - disappointed that one of these two inspired playoff runs will have come to an end.
For Chicago, it is 49 years and counting since they won a Stanley Cup; for the Flyers a quarter of a century.
So even though June is well underway and there are suddenly real issues about fatigue to discuss, the expectation is that the adrenalin levels will carry the day for a series that will end by Friday at the latest.
One might think the two weariest players in the series should be the respective aces on defence, Chris Pronger of the Flyers and Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks, but the evidence isn't there. Pronger, a former Norris Trophy winner; and Keith, the current Norris trophy favorite, just relentlessly chug along. Keith had three assists the other night; and was constantly up on the play, when it became clear that the Blackhawks needed scoring to get back in the game. He was a little unlucky on the Flyers' clinching empty-netter; the puck hopped over his stick at the left point and Jeff Carter won a footrace to put the game on ice. It didn't overshadow a strong overall performance, however.
Pronger, meanwhile, is a plus-seven in the series; was on the ice for all five of Philadelphia's goals Friday night, and continues to limit Toews' effectiveness. Toews was a teammate of Pronger's on Canada's men's Olympic hockey team and had a few good moments on the cycle in Friday's loss, but he hasn't been nearly the force he was in the first three rounds, when he was miles ahead in the playoff scoring race and the pre-series Conn Smythe trophy favorite as playoff MVP.
It may still go to Toews if the Blackhawks can reverse the momentum and win two of the next three games, but it is hard not to think that the big men on the blue line are probably now the co-front runners, depending upon how things play out from here to the end.
Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville juggled all his lines in the latter stages of Friday's defeat and hinted that he may play mix-and-match again today, something that would suit Kane just fine. Then at least either Kane or Toews can get away from Pronger.
"Yeah, maybe," answered Kane, to the question about switching up the lines. "I've said it all along, with our team we have so much depth that if they're going to key in on any two guys, the other line should be able to have a lot of space and room.
"I think sometimes change is healthy - and you can mix things up a bit and hopefully energize guys and get things going with different players. But I think it worked pretty good last game. We will see what happens."
For his part, the Flyers' Simon Gagne went out of his way the other day to warn everyone not to sell Toews short.
Richards, equally frustrated around the net, broke loose with a goal in the fourth game; Toews came close, but is still looking for his first of the series.
"They're the two leaders of the team and the two captains," said Gagne. "They're similar styles; they played together at the Olympics, and you can tell they're good hockey players.
"He (Toews) is a guy, right now that we have to be careful with. He's right there. We were able to stop him from scoring goals, but he's a good player and good players, most of the time, find ways to score goals."
One of the ways the Blackhawks can get the No. 1 line on the score sheet more often is to force more penalties from the Flyers, who have been unusually disciplined in this series, part of which is a function of the referees' collective decision to limit the marginal penalty calls. That plays into Pronger's hands; the big fellow is an expert at reading the referees on the ice and figuring out exactly how much he can get away with most nights. The Blackhawks' only power-play goal came in the third period, on a five-on-three, but it helped change the momentum of the game and almost led to a miraculous Chicago comeback.
"They've scored some big goals and had some good shifts right after we scored," said centre Patrick Sharp. "That's been a concern. But you look at the whole game and every game is a one-goal game. It's going to be close, and it's going to be a game and a series defined by who wants it more."