By Allan Muir
There's nothing quite like the day of a Game 7.
The clock winding down while you anxiously await the puck drop. The heady and disturbing mixture of excitement and nausea. The looming dread that something will go terribly wrong and break your heart.
We've all been there. We know that on a day like today, with the Rangers and the Penguins set to meet one final time with a berth in the Eastern Conference Final on the line, each team's fans are just looking for something to believe in.
Here you go.
NHL's great Game 7s gallery
For Rangers fans
* Henrik Lundqvist is lights out in seventh games. After dropping a tough 2-1 decision in 2009 to the Capitals, he's run off four straight Game-7 wins , including a first-round clincher two weeks ago against the Flyers. And check out these stats: in those five gut-churning contests, he has a 1.00 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage. Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, on the other hand, has dropped two straight Game 7s to run his record to 2-2 with a 2.36 GAA, not to mention his lowly .869 save percentage. At that rate, New York would need just 22 shots to score three goals. The Rangers should plan on shooting early, and often, in this one.
* The Blueshirts have a special purpose now. You'd think the chance to win the sacred mug and a nice, shiny ring would be motivation enough, but it's easy for a team to begin unraveling at this time of year. Guys are tired. They're hurt. They've heard everything their coach has to say so often that they know what's coming before he even opens his mouth. But the death of Martin St. Louis' mother appears to have profoundly changed this team. It has renewed New York's focus, reminded the Rangers that windows of opportunity, like life, are brief, and that neither should be wasted.
* The Penguins are 2-6 all time in Game 7s at home. In and of itself, that means nothing. Different teams, different players, different circumstances ... except for one. Pittsburgh's record is the result of the pressure of playing for keeps in front of the home fans, especially for a team that relies heavily on its offensive prowess. If things don't go the Pens' way from the start and they start pressing, things can get ugly in a hurry.
And for what it's worth, the Rangers have won the last two Game 7s they played on the road ... both with Lundqvist between the pipes.
* New York's penalty kill has smothered the regular season's top power play. The Rangers PK is 18-for-19 in the series and has shut down 12 straight power plays in the last four games. New York is slowing Pittsburgh up on the blue line, winning battles for dumped pucks and taking away time and space with an aggressive approach that has the Penguins flustered. The Pens, without the man-advantage weapon in their holster, just aren't threatening.
Penguins-Rangers Game 6 recap | Box score | Highlights | Observations
For Penguins fans
* Pittsburgh is playing for the status quo. This is one of those games where every Penguins player needs to pause for a moment, look around the room and decide what the people in it mean to him. Does he respect the coaching staff? Are these the teammates he wants beside him in the trenches? If not, no problem. If he believes in this group, if this is what he wants to be part of moving forward, then Tuesday night is the night to make a stand.A bad line change, a lazy penalty, some soft coverage ... anything short of a complete effort ensures big changes for the Penguins over the summer.
* Malkin made a promise. "We know we can win [Game 7]," he told the media. "And we'll do it." Bold words, but he's someone who can back them up single-handedly. Malkin's been decent in this series -- two goals and six points through the first six games -- but he's only shown flashes of the dominance of which he's capable. Between injuries, inconsistency and his disappointment with Team Russia in Sochi, it's been a frustrating season for the Pittsburgh star. A victory in this game can help turn things around ... and it's in his control to make it happen.
* Fleury has something to prove. He's kept his Fleury-esque gaffes to an minimum this season, but he knows his leash is still short. One inopportune goal and he could be wearing different colors next season. But at the same time, this game is stage for vindication. A strong performance tonight, especially against Lundqvist, a keeper who's been clutch in elimination games, makes it more likely that Fleury remains in black and gold.
* The Penguins have Sidney Freakin' Crosby. Yeah, he's frustrated. And yeah, he's wasting too much energy on berating officials and conducting cup checks. But even as he's struggling to finish, he remains effective. Crosby is doing one thing better than almost everybody else -- possessing the puck. His Corsi percentage at five-on-five is 61.1 percent, second best in the playoffs. It's like he has the biscuit on a string. Sooner or later, that's going to pay off. And given his legacy of big goals at big moments -- ask Lundqvist about Sid in Sochi -- tonight should be his night.