- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Capitals had the day off Sunday, so winger Matt Bradley took his 16-month-old son out on the town. In the middle of the afternoon, though, he just couldn’t help himself. He had to check his phone to see how the Flyers-Rangers game had gone.

It’s kind of a reflex at this time of year, given the ever-changing, ever-murky playoff picture. Everybody’s trying to figure out where they’re going to finish and who they’re going to face in the first round.

What Bradley saw, of course, was that Philadelphia lost in a shootout and “only got a point.” That meant the Caps were tied with the Flyers for first place in the East (though Philly held a tiebreaker edge). It also meant the Rangers were two points closer to locking up a postseason berth - and, potentially, two points closer to being the Caps’ first opponent.

There’s such an obsession, especially among fans, with playoff seeding and home-ice advantage, but is it really warranted? Home ice certainly didn’t matter much last year, when the top-seeded Capitals were eliminated in Round 1 and the seventh-seeded Flyers went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. In fact, it hasn’t been much of a boon to the Caps in the last three years. They’ve lost three Game 7s at Verizon Center in that time - and won just one (on a goal by a player who isn’t even on the roster anymore, Sergei Fedorov).

Indeed, in the post-lockout NHL - that is, since 2005 - the first seed in the East has never survived the conference playoffs. Last season we had a 7-vs.-8 matchup in the East finals (the Canadiens being the 8), the season before we had a 4-vs.-6 matchup (Penguins-Hurricanes) and the season before that we had a 2-vs.-6 matchup (Pens-Flyers).

This is more than an aberration, it seems. With the leveling effect of the salary cap, the entire landscape has changed. Or as Bradley puts it: “No matter where you finish and who you’re playing, it’s going to be a battle. The days of the eighth-place team being a pushover - as we found out last year - are gone.”

Just look at the standings. The top five teams in the East were separated by a mere four points going into Tuesday night’s games - and just below them was Montreal, which made that fabulous run (at the expense of the Capitals and Penguins) last year. Does anybody really believe the playoffs are going to come down to home-ice advantage - or might they come down to something like, oh, who’s playing the best hockey?

“You’ve just gotta get in,” winger Jason Chimera says. “A lot of emphasis is placed on seeding, but it really doesn’t mean much when you get down to the bones of it and once the playoffs start.”

That’s not to say home ice is utterly worthless, just that it’s much thinner and more treacherous than you might think. If veteran Mike Knuble, for instance, had his druthers, he’d still rather play a Game 7 in his own building. “You’re just more comfortable,” he says, “more in your normal routine. You’re eating your same food, sleeping in your own bed.”

There are other advantages to being the home team, too. For one thing, the crowd is on your side (until it isn’t, at least). Also, you get the last personnel change, which can help you match up lines better.

Still, Knuble says, “You can’t fall into that home-ice trap” - and start thinking it’s going to be a determining factor. At the end of the day, after all, it’s the players who decide the outcome.

“You’ve gotta work harder at home,” he says, “because the fans are even antsier. They want you to do better [now that the games mean more], and the tendency of the players is probably to try to be too perfect.”

Besides, he adds, “If you’re going to go deep in the playoffs, you’ve gotta win big games on the road. There’s no hiding from it. I guess home ice, playing the first two at home, gives you a chance to get on top of somebody and put the pressure on. But it can also work against you if you don’t do well” - something else the Capitals know a bit about.

It’s human nature to watch the scoreboard every night and try to project the first-round pairings (and which might be most favorable for the Caps). “Doesn’t every person in the world do that?” coach Bruce Boudreau says. But it’s just an idle pastime - like filling out NCAA tournament brackets.

Boudreau has even talked about the benefits of being away from home in the playoffs. As much as anything, he says, a player’s life is just simplified. He isn’t distracted by visiting friends and family or preoccupied with getting tickets for them. It’s just him, his teammates and the next game.

The seedings will sort themselves out in the next few days, and much air will be expended discussing them. But they probably won’t figure greatly in the final equation. What it pretty much will come down to is this: If the Capitals are the best team, they’ll win; if they aren’t, they won’t. The rest is just background noise.

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