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Is home ice really an advantage in the NHL playoffs?

Islanders fans cheer a goal against the Pittsburgh

Islanders fans cheer a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It would be absurd to suggest that nearly filling Nassau Coliseum with 12,000 fans on Thursday night is anything other than a good thing.

It is a great thing, actually, for community morale, for business, for television optics, for . . . fun!

But what about the 20 people who matter most to Islanders fans for Game 3 of a second-round playoff series against the Bruins – the Islanders themselves?

That is more complicated. Home ice in hockey long has been a mixed blessing, or maybe just a neutral factor.

The NBA, this is not.

After Tuesday’s games, the NHL said 25 of the first 50 playoff games this season had been won by the road team, which marked the sixth time in the past 10 non-bubble years that that figure was at least 50%.

This is the fourth time in the past five non-bubble playoffs that home teams have won 50% or fewer of the first 50 games.

That’s hockey, Suzyn.

Unlike in the NBA, fans are separated from the action by a wall and glass, and unlike in the NBA, officials’ calls tend to be less swayed by the emotions of the crowd.

Also, any given hockey game is more subject to randomness and luck than in the NBA.

Islanders players uniformly have expressed excitement and gratitude for fan support as attendance levels at the Coliseum have risen, from 1,400 to 6,800 to 9,000 to 12,000.

The trick, though, is to channel that energy in a positive way and not get TOO amped up by it and lose focus.

As a professional party pooper, I tried my too-amped theory on Matt Martin after practice on Wednesday, and he did to that notion what he often does to opponents: He body-slammed it.

"I don’t think so," he said. "I think it’s all good. I think we have a veteran group, a pretty mature group. We’ve learned to keep our composure pretty well under Barry [Trotz], so I think we really feed off our fan base.

"They kind of push us through, give us the energy we need to beat a good team . . . Hopefully, they bring that same type of energy they brought in the first round, which I’m sure they will. This is what we play for. We love it. So, bring all the noise."

By all means. Again, games are more fun to play in and watch since the fans returned.

But remember: The Islanders repeatedly have said they feed off not only fans in their own building, but also the fans in road arenas in Pittsburgh and Boston.

"As a hockey player, you go into another team’s building and the crowd’s roaring and they’re going, it gets you amped up as well," Casey Cizikas said before Game 1 in Boston. "So it’s fun to play in another team’s building and kind of feed off that energy as well."

Said Kyle Palmieri, "It’s awesome to be back in a hostile atmosphere. That’s why we play. It’s exciting."

If that is so, then logically the Bruins also should be energized by the venom of opposing fans on Long Island.

And unlike, say, Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry, it is unlikely veteran Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask will be shaken by hearing Coliseum fans chant his name derisively.

It is a positive for the Islanders that they have been excellent at the Coliseum this season, fans or no fans, going 21-4-3. But again, just taking the ice there with 12,000 people screaming their support guarantees nothing.

Performance is all that matters. In Game 3 against the Penguins, the Islanders left the ice after the second period to scattered boos.

The point is, the game is played on the ice, and if the noise is better for the vibe and the energy level – which it is – it arguably is better for both sides, especially seasoned teams such as these.

When Trotz was asked about having three of the five potential remaining games in the series at home, he said, "I think that both teams are pretty comfortable on the road in the playoffs."

Yup.

Still, when Trotz recalls the playoff games in the bubble last season and the games in Canada still being played with few or no fans, he feels fortunate that things around here are mostly back to normal.

He said the energy after a crucial play without fans in the building "dissipated right away. You score, great, and it’s like playing old-timers’ hockey.

"You score a goal, everybody taps each other, you line up at center ice and there’s no momentum. It’s an empty rink at midnight when you’re playing old-timers."

As he has done regularly, Trotz sought to keep the paying customers on his side. When prompted during a news conference about "mobilizing" the fans, he said this:

"Bring it. We’re going to need them. We need every one of them, just to get through this, because we’re playing a very, very good hockey team. We want to do it for the area, we want to do it for the fan base, we want to do it for ourselves as an organization.

"So we’re going to need all their help, positive vibes, all the stuff that they can bring, the craziness that they can bring to the Coliseum. [I’m] absolutely mobilizing them."

Can’t hurt. Right?

New York Sports