Home field an advantage for the Patriots

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Home field an advantage for the Patriots

FOXBORO -- In the week leading up to the AFC Championship game, teams will accept any legal advantage they can get. Even if it's something as simple as being comfortable in your surroundings leading up to the game, they'll take it.

"Anytime you are playing at home this time of year is a key thing," Wes Welker said on Thursday. "Getting the fans into it and being able to play at home and practice at your own field and your own stadium and prepare for the game at your own place and all those things are good. We just have to make sure to take advantage of it."

In a way, the Patriots have their AFC title game opponents, the Ravens, to thank for their home field advantage. Of course, the Patriots earned their 12-4 record and their No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. But if the Ravens hadn't beaten the Broncos in last week's AFC Divisional Round, New England would be leaving on a plane soon for Denver.

The benefits of playing on home field? There are the old standbys: Crowd noise, energy and, as Welker noted, home cooking. 
"We have great fans always coming out, high energy," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "Its going to be another huge game here at Gillette, so I think that everyones going to be jacked up."

But that energy hasn't always translated to wins in the playoffs. The Patriots have made the postseason each of the last four seasons, but in that time they've never had to play a playoff game on the road. They lost to the Ravens in January of 2010. They lost to the Jets in January of 2011. And last season they beat the Broncos and Ravens at home before going to the Super Bowl.

As their record shows, home field doesn't always guarantee success. And the Patriots know it.

"Its good that we get to stay home, but once you get out there on the field, you have two teams going at it, all playing for one common goal," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "I dont care where you play; its not going to change how one team comes out.

"Just because you're at home doesnt mean you're going to be more prepared than the team thats on the road. I think the team were playing now shows that. Theyve won a lot of road playoff games over the last couple years, so I dont think the home field advantage will really be that much of a difference as far as assuming since were at home were going to win."

It doesn't mean that there's no such thing as home field advantage. Only that it has its limitations. Welker said that as nice as it is to prepare for a home game at home, once the ball is kicked, the advantage stops there.

"Not really, not once the game starts," Welker said when asked if he puts stock in home field advantage. "Its a game and you prepare and you just have to go out there and execute the way you did in practice the whole week."

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.