Joe Louis Arena is no different than Sidney Crosby's street or Brad Stuart's basement, except for bigger crowds and better music during stoppages of play. There isn't a hockey player who hasn't experienced the thrill of playing a Game 7 for the Cup, starting at the age of six or maybe eight.
On Friday night, shortly after 8 p.m. in a city dizzy with expectation, the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be their stand-ins, proxies for anyone who loves a magnificent sport. This is their right after a nearly two-month trek through some of the hardest hockey you can imagine. And it is our privilege to watch them.
Stuart is a defenseman for the Red Wings, but he first won a Game 7 of the Cup final for the Calgary Flames when he was seven. He was Al MacInnis then, or, more properly, "a left-handed shot Al MacInnis." Stuart admits that he did not always win the Cup in his basement when he was playing against his buddies, but he almost always managed to take the trophy when he was by himself.
The Cup is a tough thing to win, even if there is nobody in the opposing net.
This is the joy of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup: around 11 p.m., or later if the Red Wings and Penguins produce the first overtime game of the series, players will line up, shake hands and the 2008-09 season will have its champion. There will be a blessed finality, a winner and loser, the kind of definitive answer that is one of the primary reasons in a gray-tinted world that we turned to sports in the first place.
The one-game-for-the-championship might run counter to NHL culture -- "This is unique because it always seems we have another game," Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda said -- but it dovetails nicely with, say, the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball tournament or the Olympics. If the NHL's team owners didn't make so much money on a playoff series, then a Super Bowl or Champions League hockey final with a neutral site might be worth a look. A guaranteed Game 7.
For a hockey fan, Game 7 is the apex of the sport, a crashing final chord after a long crescendo. But even for someone who doesn't follow hockey but was born with the sports gene, there is nothing more satisfying than this game. To borrow from the NBA, basically Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final is the last two minutes. There is no need to have invested emotionally in the NHL.
To enjoy this match, you don't have to know about the sudden celebrity of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin's parents in Pittsburgh -- they are called the Genos because of their boy's nickname -- or that Detroit star Henrik Zetterberg is engaged to Swedish pop star and TV personality Emma Andersson. You just have to give up three hours on a Friday evening in mid-June, a relative bargain given the possible wonders in store.
"The anticipation," replied Kirk Maltby, the grinding Red Wings forward, when asked on Thursday about what grips people most in a Game 7. "It's not Game 1. 'Yeah, only three more wins to go ...' One team is going to (be skating with) the Stanley Cup that night. It's that intrigue. Sudden-death from the get-go. It's kinda like Survivor. The Tribe has spoken at the end."
There is no certainty that this match, which speaks to both the child within and our adult need for answers, will produce a classic. Detroit coach Mike Babcock and Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma (then a fourth-liner) were on the wrong end of one with Anaheim in its 2003 Cup final against New Jersey, a match as soporific as most of the rest in that cross-country snooze.
Pittsburgh's Ruslan Fedotenko scored both goals in Tampa Bay's 2-1 Game 7 win over Calgary in 2004, but the Flames always seemed to be a step behind in that one. The last truly marvelous Game 7 occurred 15 years ago, when the New York Rangers ended a 54-year Cup drought with a one-goal win over the Vancouver Canucks, who had three last-minute faceoffs in the offensive zone.
Indeed, Game 7s in penultimate series have burrowed deeper in my memory bank than those of the Cup Final. Of the Game 7s I have witnessed, the two most extraordinary were the Rangers' win that actually took them to the final in 1994 -- Stéphane Matteau's wraparound goal against Martin Brodeur in double overtime at Madison Square Garden after the Devils had tied the score with 7.7 seconds left in regulation -- and Montreal's OT win at the Forum in the 1979 semifinals. In that one, Don Cherry's Boston Bruins were caught with too many men on the ice and Guy Lafleur scored a slapshot power play goal from the right wing, forcing OT and ultimately extending the Canadiens' Stanley Cup reign for a fourth year.
But in a series in which four of the first six games between the defending champion Red Wings or perhaps the impending champion Penguins have been grand theater, odds are that something worthy of the evocative phrase "Game 7" will occur.
Saturday morning, summer starts.
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