June 11, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Red Wings playing at home, but nothing is guaranteed

Joe Louis Arena will be rocking for Friday's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Of the 14 times the Finals have gone to a Game 7, the team with home-ice advantage has won 12 of them. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Pittsburgh

Everyone knows what the odds say. Everyone knows what the eyes have seen.

The Red Wings are much better at home. The Penguins are much shakier on the road. The difference is stark, and it's not a statistical aberration. Actually, it's an enduring trend in sports.

So the encouraging news for the Wings is, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is Friday night at Joe Louis Arena. The concerning news is, the NHL still will require them to actually score enough goals to win, and the Penguins are more talented than your average feisty upstart.

The home team has won every game in this riveting series and, frankly, I don't see why that should change. The Wings should win, based on the odds and their talent and vast experience. But instead of counting on home-ice karma, they should seriously consider playing more desperately at the start, instead of the inexplicable tentativeness that cost them in the 2-1 Game 6 loss Tuesday at Pittsburgh.

For the Wings, this comes down to what you know and what you fear. The Wings are pretty fearless, but as we've seen, they're not peerless. The Penguins are a worthy opponent, and despite all the statistical evidence, the pressure now plops flatly on the defending champs.

This is where it gets dangerous. The numbers, including the Wings' 11-1 record at Joe Louis Arena this postseason, mean everything. And they also mean nothing once the game starts, particularly if the Wings don't come out with a flourish.

"It's the greatest stage, the greatest opportunity, and it should be a lot of fun," Mike Babcock said Wednesday. "I think our players should really enjoy the next couple of days, so words like fear don't enter the picture one bit. Not even close."

Up for grabs

It's amazing how much more comfortably these teams play at home. Chris Osgood, fantastic in defeat Tuesday night, has been even stronger at home. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been great at home, questionable on the road. Marian Hossa hasn't scored in the series and clearly is feeling the pressure, but at least he's been active at home. He needs to be better now.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins outscored the Wings, 10-5. In Detroit, the Wings have outscored the Penguins, 11-2. The last image of the Penguins in Joe Louis Arena was their slashing act of immaturity in a 5-0 loss last weekend.

But this is not unique. This is the 15th Stanley Cup decided in a Game 7, and the home team is 12-2. It has happened three times since 2003 and the home team won each time -- New Jersey, Tampa Bay and Carolina.

That New Jersey victory over Anaheim in 2003 ties eerily to this series. The Ducks were coached by Babcock and won every home game and lost every road game. They lost, 3-0, in Game 7, and a grinding Anaheim forward named Dan Bylsma missed a prime scoring chance.

Bylsma now coaches the Penguins, and he must feel good knowing they've pushed hard and have a chance to put a huge fright in the savvy champs, and his former coach.

"Whatever the odds are, we're going to take them," Bylsma said. "We're going to go in there and be determined and play our game. In games 1 and 2, Detroit was better in and around the net. Being at home maybe gives you a little more energy, a little more focus and a little more jump."

Fear or fact? Well, both.

The Penguins have won three of the past four games this series, and the Wings should be concerned the Penguins have skated so well. And it's not just Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby creating batches of odd-man rushes against Detroit's defense. Even in the Wings' 3-1 victories in games 1 and 2, they were outshot and won with goals from such unlikely sources as Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson.

Wings need fast start

So, can home ice really make that much of a difference? The noisy crowds are a factor, as is the strategy -- the home team gets the last line change so it can create matchups it prefers, such as Henrik Zetterberg shadowing Crosby.

Familiarity matters, too. The Wings know how the puck caroms off the lively boards at Joe Louis Arena, and used it for a couple fortunate goals.

But as much as anything, winning at home becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy -- the more you do it, the more you think you'll do it, the more positive you play. The Wings needed all that in a Game 7 at home against the Ducks last month, when Dan Cleary scored with three minutes left to win it.

Just to make you more nervous, I'll point out the Penguins also won a Game 7 this postseason, on the road, rolling past the Capitals, 6-2.

The Wings are not the Capitals but the point is, the home team isn't guaranteed anything, no matter what the numbers say. The Wings know it. All they have to do is go out and show it, right from the start.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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