Name a reason an NHL team might have a strong record at home, and several other teams could say the same thing. So why are the Pittsburgh Penguins doing so well at PPG Paints Arena?
PHN took that to the sources after practice Monday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
The best – or at least most interesting – answer came in isolating a word forward Jared McCann used.
It’s not uncommon for athletes of many walks to laud their home fans and credit their vocal support for a boost. In football, they call it the 12th man effect. But just how does the raucous roar translate to better performance – good defense, more touchdowns or home runs or, you know, goals?
“You get tingles,” McCann said. “You get goosebumps. When you have fans having your back like that, it makes you feel good. You have a bit of pep in your step.”
The Penguins, who sell out every game, have pepped and stepped their way to a 12-3-2 home record. That’s tied with the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins for most home wins – and the Islanders have two home rinks.
Starting Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins play their next three games on home ice.
There are lots of reasons a team might do well at home. In hockey, some rinks are known for having better ice conditions or boards with certain bounces that let home players take advantage of familiar caroms.
There’s also a built-in NHL rule favoring the home team, which gets the last line change, a tactical advantage that lets the coaches manipulate the matchups.
Then there are the standard things often cited – the comfort of being in their home facilities, driving to the rink in their own vehicles from their homes, etc.
“I think we have a great facility. We’re all very comfortable in that room,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz offered. “Our fans are great. We love playing here. I don’t know. It’s tough to explain. It’s a cliché answer. We’re just comfortable. Everyone has their routines here. I guess everyone could say that. I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
How about tingles, though?
Schultz laughed. “I don’t know if I’d use that word,” he said, “but they definitely give you an extra boost of energy because they’re smart hockey fans. They can sense when it’s an important part of the game or if it’s a big game.”
Winger Jake Guentzel also smiled at McCann’s word, but he didn’t dispute it.
“Yeah, when they’re loud and they get into the game like that, it’s pretty cool to see,” he said of the home fans. “I think from all of us, we get excited for that. They’re there every night. We’re lucky to have a fan base like this.”
Defenseman Marcus Pettersson also put forth the, un, seventh man theory. He offered a little more detailed explanation of how a vocal, supportive crowd can affect a team’s performance.
“We’ve had a couple of games at home where we’ve been down coming into the third (period) and then, just feeding off their energy, coming back in the third. I think that helps a lot,” Pettersson said.
“If you’re on your heels on the road, you can feel like you’re getting overwhelmed. It’s a mindset that every little scoring chance the opponent gets, you hear the crowd go, ‘Whoa.’ It’s a little mental I think. It doesn’t have to be a great scoring chance, and it feels like you’re on your heels.
“At home, when the crowd gets into it, you can feel their energy and you feed off that.”
But what about that last line change? Surely, having the right to keep an opponent’s checking line or top defensive pair away from the Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin line much of the time, for instance, or countering an opponent’s top players the way you wish gives the Penguins an advantage at the Paint Can.
“I don’t think so, no,” McCann said.
Guentzel was less dismissive but doesn’t think that offers the players an emotional boost.
“I think from the coaches’ end, that’s what they want,” Guentzel said. “Players don’t think about matchups too much, but coaches do. That could be a big factor in it, yeah.”
Yet even Penguins coach Mike Sullivan passed when asked if there was one key – including having the matchup advantage – to the team’s prowess at home.
“Our players certainly love to play here,” Sullivan said. “I think our fan support is terrific. We have so much appreciation for the support that we get. I do know that’s a factor for sure.
“But I don’t think it’s any one thing. It’s probably a combination of a lot of things.
“That’s something that we’re hoping to continue with.”