Home ice hardly an advantage between Blackhawks, Lightning

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For 16 seasons, 1,108 regular-season games, and 103 playoff games, Kimmo Timonen has chased the Stanley Cup. In the past six years, Jonathan Toews has played in 115 playoff games, and already has won two championships.

But the Stanley Cup will be at the United Center on Monday for Game 6. And even for two players at opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s hard not to think about that fact, even with an all-important Game 5 on Saturday in Tampa still in the way.

“You can dream about it, but you can’t let your mind wander too far,” Timonen said.

“There are moments when you let yourself daydream,” Toews said. “Then all of a sudden you catch yourself getting ahead of yourself, and you need to snap back to right here, right now.”

One of the very few things Toews has not accomplished in his remarkable career is hoisting the Stanley Cup on home ice, in front of the home fans. The 2010 Cup was won in Philadelphia. The 2013 Cup was won in Boston. In order to have a chance to do it in Chicago this time, the Hawks will have to win at Amalie Arena on Saturday. In theory, Tampa Bay has a huge advantage — it’s a best-of-three series now, and the Lightning have home-ice advantage in Game 5 and a potential Game 7.

In reality, that means squat.

The Hawks are 6-5 on the road in this postseason, winning a Game 7 in Anaheim and beating Nashville without home-ice advantage. The Lightning are 8-4 on the road this postseason, winning a Game 7 in New York and beating Montreal without home-ice advantage. All the old clichés are still true —it’s nice to play in your own building, to hear the cheers of your own fans, to have the last change, to put your stick down last in the faceoff circle.

But home ice is a luxury. It’s no longer a necessity. Certainly not between these two teams, each of whom already has won a game in the other’s rink.

“I don’t think it matters much if you play on the road or at home,” Marcus Kruger said. “When teams go in to visiting buildings, I think they play a little bit simpler. So they win a lot of games on the road.”

Joel Quenneville has a reputation as a master chess player in big games, exploiting the last change and securing the matchups he wants. Against Anaheim on the road, for example, when Toews won a faceoff, he’d immediately leave the ice to get away from Ryan Kesler. But at the same time, Quenneville has confidence in nearly all of his lines (no matter what combinations he uses) to handle any line it faces, no matter how skilled or physical or gritty. Lightning coach Jon Cooper has that same faith in his team, and seems far less concerned with matchups than Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota’s Mike Yeo, or Nashville’s Peter Laviolette were.

Both teams got this far on their depth and their balance. So neither coach is getting too bogged down in the matchup game — thereby nullifying the only true, tangible advantage of home ice.

“In a certain way, it makes it easier,” Tampa Bay’s Valtteri Filppula said. “You can just worry about going out there and playing your game, not worrying if you have to come out or not.”

So far, this is the closest Stanley Cup Final in history — the first time a series has been tied 2-2 with nothing but one-goal games. In fact, neither team has even held a two-goal lead yet. In theory, home ice should be the difference-maker. Reality says otherwise.

At this point, the only advantage to home ice would be the ambience of the postgame celebration. Again, nice, but hardly necessary.

“I’d rather play at home,” Antoine Vermette said. “But it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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