By Stu Hackel
Here’s all you need to know about the allure of Game 7s in the Stanley Cup playoffs: Yahoo’s NHL writer Nick Cotsonika traveled to Montreal — a city consumed by the doings of its hockey team — to cover the crucial Game 6 between the Canadiens and Bruins on Tuesday night and he tweeted yesterday afternoon, “In Montreal for Bruins-Habs, and everyone is talking about … the Canucks.”
And when I tuned in to Montreal’s Team 990 a few hours later to catch Pierre McGuire’s late afternoon segment on the “Melnick in the Afternoon” program, the conversation began with an extensive breakdown on the upcoming Sabres-Flyers Game 7 and moved to the Blackhawks-Canucks Game 7 for 15 minutes before chewing over the Habs-B’s Game 6 in the final three minutes.
Every series has its dramatic story arc and moments of both loftiness and gravity, but lasting greatness and legends are born in Game 7s, when both teams stand at the crossroads of going on or going home (SI.com photo gallery: NHL’s Great Game 7′s). As each game of a series is played, the level of play is ratcheted up and by Game 7, the combination of unmatched performances under extreme pressure far more often than not produces great hockey.
This season’s first round will have its final two Game 7s tonight, when the Canadiens – who lived to fight one more battle in their terrific war with the Bruins – travel to Boston (7 p.m. ET), and the Lightning — who have battled back from a 3-1 deficit — skate into Pittsburgh (8 p.m.). The four Game 7s aren’t close to the record (more on that below), but they do reflect just how wonderfully competitive the NHL is this spring. There’s been but one sweep (Red Wings-Coyotes) and a five-game series (Capitals-Rangers) that was closer than the end result indicates. The two six-game series (Sharks-Kings and Predators-Ducks) were both hotly contested and could easily have gone the way of the other four — to the limit.
One is tempted to say that this year’s first round has to be the envy of all other sports, except for the fact that this is the way the Stanley Cup playoffs are almost every year. Part of that is because there’s little division among NHL teams’ quality in this post-lockout era. We no longer have the few haves and the many have-nots populating this league. As the regular season showed, most of the NHL teams are fairly equal and you really do need all 82 games to figure out which 16 get into the postseason. So when they get paired in the first round, even a matchup of first vs. eighth seeds can be hugely entertaining.
That’s how the Hawks-Canucks series went, as each team won three straight games before last night’s climactic match, one that should count as something of a classic. The Hawks didn’t look like the step-behind club that began the series, and the Canucks played nothing like the inept group that lost Games 4 and 5. The two teams thundered back and forth through three periods of hard skating, crisp passing, rugged hitting and stout defending. The goalies — the highly maligned Roberto Luongo and the highly unknown Corey Crawford — excelled throughout, especially the Blackhawks’ rookie who regularly made stops like this…
…to keep his team in their biggest game of the year. He even stopped the first-ever penalty shot called in a Game 7, awarded to Alex Burrows, who had scored the only goal of the game to that point.
Crawford had to be good because the Canucks probably had the better of the play for most of the game. They pushed the play into Chicago’s end more often, and kept the Hawks from getting players to the front of the net and too many second chances after Luongo made saves. And still, there was Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who has to be the best leader in the NHL, coming to the rescue. One could sense he wouldn’t allow a 1-0 score to stand and he didn’t, transforming a penalty-killing shift into a scoring foray, willing a late game-tying goal that would force overtime.
It was the eighth consecutive night in which there would be an OT game, which is a new NHL record (the old mark was set in 2001) and while the pace never slackened, it was obvious that fatigue — and maybe some jitters — became a factor. Burrows took a holding penalty — his in-game story arc was trending downward – but the Canucks’ penalty kill gave Chicago very little. Having survived, Vancouver pressed the issue. Crawford did his best to steal the victory but when Hawks Chris Campoli tried to flip the puck into the neutral zone, Burrows was there to glove it to the ice and finally bring down the reigning champions.
Of course, if you’re looking for Game 7 heroes, you have to include the Flyers’ Danny Briere, who was the best player on the ice Tuesday night in Philadelphia, with a big goal and assist in their 5-2 win over the Sabres. Buffalo could have put away the Flyers on home ice in Game 6, but — as SI.com’s Sarah Kwak noted in the addendum to her Three Stars selection from last night’s action — Briere wouldn’t let them. If you have a chance to close out a team on home ice and fail, and have to go on the road for Game 7, that often spells trouble. It did for the Sabres.
The fourth game of a series is, as the hockey truism goes, the hardest game of the round to win. In no year was that more true than in 1992, when six first round series went seven games — all four in the Wales Conference and two in the Campbell – while the other two went six games. In three of the seven-game series — Capitals over the Penguins, Red Wings over the North Stars, and Canucks over the Jets — the winning team trailed 3-1 in games but rallied to advance. And in the Bruins-Sabres series, Boston led 3-1, but Buffalo rallied to tie it 3-3 before winning Game 7.
Strangely, the rest of the ’92 postseason went quickly. In the seven remaining series, two went six games but four, including Penguins-Blackhawks Cup final, were sweeps. It was as if the hockey gods deemed we’d had enough drama for one year. That’s not to say the rest of this year’s playoffs will follow suit. There’s reason to believe the parity we’ve seen thus far will continue.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There are still two more Game 7s to go. The Pens have home ice, but can they survive the continued absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin one more time to beat back the hard charging Lightning, who have rallied from down 3-1?
The Canadiens and Bruins look to be equal no matter where their games are played, each having won twice on the other team’s home ice. Can Boston survive their wretched power play and undisciplined play to rebound from their Game 6 loss? Will the Habs be spent after their 2-1 win last night?
“It’s a Game 7, Montreal against Boston,” said the Canadiens’ Jeff Halpern. “I have to believe everyone will have their legs. It will be a special atmosphere.”
It always is in a Seventh Game.