Home-ice advantage. It's more than just having the crowd behind you. The NHL is the only major sport where the home team has an advantage over the visitors that is written right into the rulebook - namely, in being able to make the last line change.
And no team in the 2009 playoffs has done it better than the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Red Wings have been virtually unbeatable at home, with a combined record of 11-1 in the playoffs, and their only loss coming in triple overtime.
The Penguins have experienced first-hand how difficult it is to beat the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. In three victories over Pittsburgh at home, the Red Wings have outscored their opponents 11-2, while holding Evgeni Malkin to two points and keeping Sidney Crosby completely off the scoresheet.
In stark contrast, the Penguins have racked up an 8-4 advantage in their pair of victories at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, during which Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for two goals and six assists.
When asked about the home team advantage thus far in final, Crosby didn't put that much stock on home ice.
"It's the way things have played out," Crosby said on Monday. "I think every game has been close up to the last game."
So it's been a tale of two arenas, where the home team has won each of the five games in the series (incidentally, the last time a Stanley Cup final went seven games with the home team winning each match was 2003, when New Jersey beat Anaheim). But in the case of the Penguins, their performances at home and on the road have been dramatically different.
In Pittsburgh, they have looked sharp, dynamic, and dangerous. In Detroit, the Penguins have been forced out of their gameplan, and in Game 5, Pittsburgh found themselves on a consistent march to the box after a string of minor penalties. Detroit converted on three of nine power play chances to put the game away.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma couldn't explain the disparity in play that each team has shown at home and on the road.
"I'm not sure there's a specific reason why. Special teams have been a big part of every game in terms of winning the game. It always is, and that's been a factor in all the wins, I believe," Bylama said.
"But there is an extra jump at home. There's an extra -- you're familiar with your rink, you're familiar with the surroundings, and that does help out as well. Sometimes on the road it's a special performance that you need when the teams are two very good teams."
Of the 32 series in Stanley Cup final history that have had 3-2 series leads, the leading team has gone on to win the championship 26 times.
Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has been very successful in using line-matching to his advantage on home ice. He prefers Henrik Zetterberg's line out nearly every time Crosby's line comes over the boards. In the first two games in Detroit, Zetterberg's line matched Crosby's for 46 of 49 shifts (94%), while in Pittsburgh, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was able to reduce that number to 37 of 51 shifts over Games 3 and 4 (73%).
For his part, Bylsma down played the role of matchups on Monday.
"I don't believe it's the match-ups. You know, that does help out, does maybe -- easier to get into your rhythm with your team and what your players are expecting because you get to the final change," Bylsma said. "But I think you're talking about two teams that are playing pretty hard with skilled players, and it's even enough that the home ice is an advantage for you."
And now, with Game 6 on the horizon on Tuesday night at Mellon Arena, the home-ice pendulum will swing back to Pittsburgh. With the Stanley Cup itself in the building, Detroit might find a way to squeeze out a road victory and celebrate a championship on Mellon Arena ice for the second year in a row.
"It's a hard building to play in Pittsburgh. It's loud, the fans are really excited, and the players are feeding off that," Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said. "They played a good game, Game 3, even better in Game 4. For us, we have to go in there and play a good road game, patient, protect the puck very well. Make sure we don't give them quality opportunities."
If the Penguins play another strong game to hold off the Red Wings and force a Game 7, the red-and-white clad crowd in Hockeytown will be ready for Friday's deciding match. And unless the Penguins can find a way through Detroit's home-ice armour, the Red Wings will soon be raising their 12th Stanley Cup banner to the rafters at the Joe.