Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Home Ice Advantage, Nick Cousins

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ANATOMY OF A HOME ICE ADVANTAGE

Much has been written and said lately about the steep difference between the Flyers’ record — and the related team stats that accompany it — at home and on the road this season.

There have been hiccups along the way, but the Flyers have been a pretty good home team this season.

The club’s home record of 15-7-3 isn’t elite — ranking 13th among the NHL’s 30 teams and eighth in the Eastern Conference — but it would at least be a wildcard-level pace if the team was not so awful on the road (7-15-4).

Unfortunately for the Flyers, being able to win on the road is where the playoff contenders get separated from the pretenders. Head coach Craig Berube readily acknowledges this reality, while adding that the team he’s seen at home this season is much closer to what he expected from his squad overall heading into the season.

“You’ve got to be able to compete and win on the road in this league, I think we all know that,” Berube said last week. “Last year, we became a pretty good road club [18-16-7] over the season. We need to get back to that.”

Around the entire NHL, there remains a definite home-ice advantage for teams. On a leaguewide basis, only four teams (Columbus, Buffalo, Arizona and Edmonton) have sub .500 marks on home ice. Meanwhile, there are 13 teams with records of .500 or below on the road. That includes the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been virtually unbeatable (21-4-1) at home and stayed afloat at sea level (11-11-4) in away games.

The traditional elements that make up a home-ice advantage — 1) the home team getting the final line change, 2) players’ familiarity with the characteristics of the rink such as the way pucks bounce off the boards or adapting to the quality of the ice surface, 3) the ability to stay in a comfortable and more consistent schedule of practice, meals and sleep and 4) the sheer game-night adrenaline created by home fan support — all come into play.

Flyers goaltender Steve Mason said after Tuesday’s practice that there is a genuine home-ice advantage for him as a goaltender. Apart from better knowing what to expect from bounces off the end boards, there is also a visual comfort level to being in one’s own element.

“You are a lot more comfortable at home, just the whole atmosphere inside the rink when I’m looking down at the other end,” said Mason. “Everything looks familiar, [like] the lighting. Some of that took some getting used to at the beginning of the year, where there wasn’t a home ice advantage because it was all new. It’s gotten to the point where there is a home-ice advantage again. It’s definitely a ‘thing’, if you want to call it that.”

Visualization comfort during a game is important to all goaltenders to varying degrees, but is especially important to Mason. During training camp and at the start of the season, he struggled a bit adapting to the new lighting system at the Wells Fargo Center. It took a few weeks, but he soon got used to it.

For a similar reason, Mason ditched the new retro-colored pads he wore at practice last Friday in favor of his familiar white ones: the latter were neutral in his peripheral vision whereas the caramel-colored set created a distraction in his peripheral vision. The decision to go with what was familiar perhaps partially aided the goalie’s comfort in a 30-save shutout in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Toronto at the Wells Fargo Center.

For the season, Mason has posted a 1.97 goals against average, .935 save percentage and 10-4-2 record in 17 outings at the Wells Fargo Center. On the road, his personal-stat numbers are still respectable (2.74 GAA, .912 save percentage) but Mason measures success in wins and losses, regardless of goal support, defensive lapses and other factor beyond his control. In his 15 road outings, he has been the winning goaltender in only one game this season (1-8-4 record).

Sudden changes to a home rink — the color of the seats, the installation of new boards, etc — can throw players off for a couple games, especially the goaltenders.

For instance, the Dallas Stars installed new boards at the American Airlines Center this season that are perhaps the liveliest in the League. Pucks ricochet everywhere, and it is hardly uncommon for shots (or even dump-ins) that hit the end walls to carom directly into the slots.

Prior to the season, Lindy Ruff tried to help his team acclimate by holding a couple non-game day practices at the American Airlines Center. It didn’t work. While it would be untrue and an extremely weak excuse to say “it’s all the boards fault,” it was indisputable that an upgraded version of a team that went 23-11-7 (10th best home record) at the AAC last season suddenly felt ill-at-ease at home.

The Stars started the 2014-15 season by dropping five of their first six games at home, including an overtime loss to the Flyers that was Philly’s first victory of the young season. That stumble out of the gates at home put Dallas behind the eight ball in the Western Conference standings. Dallas has since won enough home games to get to 11-10-6 overall at the American Airlines Center this season, but their terrible start at home has been costly. A club that is a respectable 12-9-2 on the road is still not in playoff position in the West.

When teams are playing well, there is truly no place like home. However, the energy and passion of the home crowd can cut both ways.

Said Mason, “You go into a game with a little more confidence at home, and it’s not just for goaltenders. When you play at home, fans get on you but not the same way away fans get on you.”

The Flyers finish up their five-game homestand on Thursday night, looking to finish it with a fifth consecutive win. Standing in their way will be the Metropolitan Division leading New York Islanders. The Isles have stumbled a bit since the All-Star break but bring a 15-11-1 road record (tied with Chicago for fourth-best in the NHL) into the game.

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s game, the Flyers have to find ways to be a more effective road club. The team begins a four-game road trip on Sunday.

“We haven’t obviously been a very good road team this year so I think we just worry about [the next game] and then a little time off and worry about the road after that,” said Brayden Schenn. “We’re playing some pretty good hockey now and we’ve got to keep the ball rolling.”

*********** COUSINS TAKES AHL PLAYER OF THE MONTH HONORS

The American Hockey League announced on Tuesday that Lehigh Valley Phantoms center Nick Cousins was the league’s Player of the Month for January. The 21-year-old forward posted 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 13 games. His efforts included a hat trick and an assist in the Phantoms’ 5-1 home win over the Binghamton Senators on Jan. 17.

Per Phantoms radio play-by-play announcer Bob Rotruck, the last Phantom to win an AHL monthly award was Claude Giroux, who won AHL Rookie of the Month honors for December 2008. Prior to that, R.J. Umberger took Rookie of Month honors for November 2004.

It is relatively uncommon for players as young as Cousins to win Player of the Month honors. Dating back to the 2007-08 season (special thanks to “Appleyard” for his thorough and legwork-saving research), there have been eight winners who have been 21 years old at the time, and none who were younger. All of the previous winners are now in the NHL: Jiri Tlusty, Max Pacioretty, Tyler Johnson, Nazem Kadri, Casey Cizikas, Joe Colborne, Brett Connolly and Emerson Etem.

While this seems to bode well for Cousins — and the player has made undeniable progress from his first to second pro seasons — the forward still has work to do to make himself into an NHL player.

Cousins is pretty much exclusively a center. He is a little bit undersized (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) and could still stand to add some power. He’s an average skater who does not always move his feet with enough consistency. While he has made notable improvements in his two-way play, he is still a work in progress in trying to do the little things like curling back to assist the defensemen in breakouts and in avoiding high-risk plays with the puck.

The good news is that Cousins has gotten better across-the-board in his second pro season. What he’s always had is good offensive hockey sense. The puck seems to find him because he anticipates well and also has good hands. His chances of eventually cracking the NHL are definitely brighter now than they were a year ago at this time.

It will not be scoring stats alone that get Cousins to the NHL. However, an ability to contribute offensively as well as an agitating presence will no doubt help him on his way if he can continue to track in the right direction in other areas.

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