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Outside the doors to the home locker room at San Jose's SAP Center on April 24, an hour or so after perhaps the most thrilling comeback in Stanley Cup playoff history, general manager Doug Wilson enveloped the Sharks' oldest player in an elephantine embrace and, leaning close, whispered a single word to "Jumbo" Joe Thornton: "Unbelievable."
What more could be said? The hockey gods have authored plenty of Game 7 dramas, from Too Many Men to the Easter Epic to Howie Rose's iconic radio call as the Rangers triumphed over the Devils to decide the 1994 Eastern Conference finals: MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU! And now future generations will tell tales of the Bedlam by the Bay, a nutty and wrenching thrill ride instantly heralded among the genre's best.
Trailing the Golden Knights 3–0 midway through the third period, the Sharks scored four times across a five-minute power play after Vegas center Cody Eakin received a major penalty on what turned out to be a largely innocuous cross-check. (In fairness to the zebras, the sequence in question had left San Jose captain Joe Pavelski motionless, blood pooling beneath his helmet, after he fell awkwardly and slammed his head on the ice.) The Knights struck back in the dying seconds of regulation, but winger Barclay Goodrow tucked the series winner past goalie Marc-André Fleury with 101 seconds left in the overtime period.
"Maybe the best hockey game I've ever been a part of," the 39-year-old Thornton said. Then again, he mused, "it's supposed to be crazy. It's Game 7."
Fans have gotten their fill of chaos this postseason; all four division winners were upset in the first round for the first time ever, including the Blue Jackets' landmark sweep of the 62-win Lightning. But there is something especially tantalizing about the NHL's best answer to single-game spectacles like the Super Bowl or March Madness.
Why? For starters, winner-take-all scenarios are more prevalent in hockey than in any other pro sport; there have been 52 NHL Game 7s over the previous decade (including three in this season's first round), compared with 32 for the NBA and eight for MLB. They are a rite of passage for Cup contenders—six straight champions, and eight of the last 10, have endured at least one Game 7—and catnip for casual fans: Over the past four seasons, every Game 7 broadcast on NBCSN has enjoyed at least a 20% ratings boost from Game 6; the 2014 Western Conference finals rubber match between the Blackhawks and the Kings still stands as cable's most-watched NHL game since 1994, at 4.1 million viewers.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of Rose's career-defining cry, which New York fans still gleefully parrot to the longtime WFAN broadcaster each spring. But his first Game 7 experience was a painful lesson from the losing side.
He was a self-described temperamental 17-year-old on May 2, 1971, eyes glued to the television set in his family's Bayside, Queens, living room as his beloved Blueshirts faced Chicago for a Cup final berth. When the Blackhawks struck first, young Howie cussed and got banished to his sister's bedroom by their father. And then, when Bobby Hull struck the series-clinching goal in the third period, he stomped the floor so hard that the whole apartment shook. The next morning he went to school wearing funeral attire: black jeans, black socks and a black sweatshirt. Classmates gave him grief as expected, but the heartache was real.
"From the moment you walk into the arena, the entire outside world ceases to exist," says Rose. "You're consumed by the enormity of the moment. Just saying the words ‘Game 7’ makes you a little nervous, gives you a little chill. And that's regardless of your role, whether you're an announcer or a fan or a vendor. Nothing in sports can replicate the feeling of Game 7."
One year later, coach Barry Trotz remembers Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals not for its eventual result—his Capitals' tidy 4–0 win over the Lightning—but for what happened earlier that morning in Tampa: "That was my hot lap."
It had been a team tradition throughout the postseason, one brisk twirl to energize the troops before their pregame skate. Last to emerge from the visitors' tunnel at Amalie Arena, Trotz was greeted by a sea of smirks. “Well,” Trotz thought, “I guess it’s my turn.” And so off he went, lumbering around the rink, nearly wiping out at the finish line while dropping onto one knee and trying to celebrate like captain Alex Ovechkin. "I didn't do it fast, dismount wasn't great," says Trotz, now behind the Isles' bench in their second-round series against the Hurricanes. "It relaxed them. If I would've said no, I think that would've been a real big coaching mistake."
Besides, by the time a series goes the distance, there isn't much else for bench bosses to do. Teams typically hold long personnel meetings before each round, poring over prescout video and scheming strategies. But after six games against the same opponent, "X's and O's are pretty much thrown out the window," says retired forward Brad Richards, owner of a spotless 8–0 record in Game 7s. "Most of my experiences just came down to will."
Of course, coaches will still try anything to gain an edge. Former defenseman Ken Daneyko, a hardened veteran of a dozen Game 7s, recalls Larry Robinson showing Al Pacino’s speech from Any Given Sunday before the Devils beat Philadelphia for the ‘00 Eastern Conference crown. But they can only do so much. With the ‘04 Stanley Cup up for grabs against Calgary, not even a team hospitality suite at a nearby Marriott, outfitted with pinball machines and a Golden Tee arcade console by coach John Tortorella, could successfully distract the Lightning players.
By 2:30 p.m., a full two hours earlier than normal, the entire team had given up and headed to the rink. “It was a very quiet, somber energy,” center Tim Taylor says. “Guys were just in their heads, trying to picture themselves playing, trying go through the same routine but, at the same time, knowing this is not the same routine. This is the whole culmination of your career.”
Hockey players are raised to always focus on the next thing: next shift, next period, next game. Naturally this sense is intensified in the playoffs, even more so before a Game 7. "You become like a sociopath in a way, as an individual and also as a group," says retired defenseman Andrew Ference, who survived three Game 7s to win the 2011 Cup with the Bruins. "I’ve never found a better term. You’re in that mode of eliminating a lot of emotion, which includes a lot of nervousness and excitement. It gets very businesslike, very tactical."
But therein lies the beauty—or, perhaps, the agony—of winner-take-all scenarios: It is the one time when no nexts are guaranteed. "That is the reason these Game 7s become so dramatic," says Doc Emrick, the play-by-play voice of NBC who has called 44 of them in his career. "All that these teams started with, nine months before, can come to a slamming halt."
It is the sport’s ultimate cliché: a frozen-over pond, a starry-eyed skater, a full-throated countdown … 3 … 2 … 1 ... an overtime goal to capture the Stanley Cup. And all before suppertime!
Pat LaFontaine, for instance, grew up imitating Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault in his Detroit neighborhood. "When you’re on the lakes, on the street, in the driveway,” the Hall of Famer says, “it was always Game 7.” Even so, there is no way his adolescent mind could have dreamed up a scenario like the Easter Epic, the gold standard of do-or-dies.
The rubber match of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals began on Holy Saturday, but it spilled into a blasphemously late hour Sunday with the Islanders and the Capitals knotted 2–2. Before the fourth overtime, LaFontaine recalls sprawling across the dressing room carpet, legs elevated, as he and his teammates huffed from an oxygen tank. Relief soon arrived when a reinvigorated LaFontaine hammered a spin-o-rama slapper past goalie Bob Mason just before 2 a.m.; at 128:47, it remains the longest Game 7 in NHL history. "It's the best time of the year for being a hockey player," LaFontaine says. "It's what you sacrifice for."
Indeed, most good Game 7 stories feature some form of superhuman feats. "Lots of needles, lots of feet getting frozen up to fit in skates," Richards says. On May 1, 1992, Daneyko recorded two assists against the Rangers while wearing a hockey glove refashioned like a mitten so that the rubber cast protecting two broken fingers would fit inside. This came after a midnight sojourn across the Hudson River into Manhattan, where then–Devils GM Lou Lamoriello had accompanied Daneyko for a hastily scheduled doctor’s appointment. “You’ve got to do something,” Daneyko had pleaded to Lamoriello. “I’ve got to play.”
A similar drive had motivated Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque to leave home early on the afternoon of April 17, 1990. Nursing a bruised left hip that had sidelined him for Games 3–6 against Hartford in the first round, Bourque hit the ice at Boston Garden alone around 3:30 p.m., only then deciding to give Game 7 a go. That night, a massive roar filled the rink when Bourque emerged from the tunnel, like Willis Reed on skates, and logged more than 20 minutes in a 3–1 win. “If it was the regular season, I’d probably be out another week to 10 days,” Bourque says. The obvious conclusion is left unstated: No chance he was missing Game 7.
Legacies are defined in Game 7s, for better or worse. Oilers defenseman Steve Smith will always be linked to his horrific own goal against the Flames on April 30, 1986, which ended Edmonton's chance to threepeat. And just ask the fine citizens of Toronto how they feel about the Maple Leafs furballing three Game 7s against Boston over the past seven years, including in the first round this spring.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Bourque, who mic-dropped into retirement after his Avalanche beat the Devils in Game 7 for the 2001 Cup. But lesser-known names are just as likely to emerge. Joel Ward will forever drink gratis in Washington after his OT goal eliminated Boston in '12. Ditto for Max Talbot among the Yinzers after outshining Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by scoring twice to win the '09 Cup for Pittsburgh. And, let's be honest, how many among us mistook Barclay Goodrow for the name of a fake law firm? "You just don't know where a hero will come from," Emrick says, "but in Game 7 there always is one."
This maxim has been true since the beginning. Eight decades ago, the NHL's first-ever Game 7 went to triple overtime on April 2, 1939. It was an appropriately tense affair between the Rangers and the Bruins; at one point someone hurled a grapefruit from the second balcony at Boston Garden, causing New York to erect a protective fortress of blankets. The Rangers had their hands full with the famed Kraut line, but the night belonged to Bruins rookie winger Mel Hill, who whizzed a loose puck past goalie Bert Gardiner's left knee at 12:40 a.m., sending Boston to the Cup final.
The next day, according to a Boston Globe report, the youngster now known as “Sudden Death” Hill had been so exhausted by his first Game 7 experience that he slept until suppertime.
Judging solely by the visiting locker room after Game 7 at Washington's Capital One Arena on April 24, it would have been hard to tell whether Carolina had just won its first NHL playoff series in 10 years or if a youth soccer team had finished practice.
Empty bottles of water, Gatorade and organic juice cluttered each stall. Orange wedges and bananas were offered on a service cart, along with peanut butter sandwiches and palm-sized packets of something called Oatmeal Fruit Squeeze. But then defenseman Justin Faulk, chomping on a folded slice of cheese pizza, offered a clue. "Can you grab me a beer?" he hollered at a team official. "That'd be great."
Calories are calories, especially after 4½ periods of full-tilt playoff hockey. Fighting back from an early two-goal deficit, the Hurricanes hammered the defending champs throughout both overtime periods, until winger Brock McGinn tipped a centering feed from captain Justin Williams. Or, as Carolina defenseman Calvin de Haan kept calling him during the on-ice celebration, "Mr. Game 7! Mr. Game 7! Mr. Game 7!"
The truth is that Williams hates the nickname. Thinks it grants too much individual credit, especially when Game 7s in hockey are just as likely to turn on blind luck—or, as it happened in San Jose the night before, blind refs. “Brock scored the goal,” Williams said, sitting amid the flotsam at a locker stall. “He’s the hero.” But it's hard to argue that anyone is more deserving: With 15 points in nine career Game 7s—seven goals, eight assists and eight victories—the 37-year-old Williams ranks first on the NHL's all-time list, outpacing the likes of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky.
The big secret to Mr. Game 7's latest triumph? The opposite of sociopathy, it turns out. Carolina had lost its previous five visits to Washington, so rather than stick to his rituals, Williams "switched up any little thing I could think of," from the length of his afternoon nap (45 minutes, half as long as normal) to the type of potatoes that he ate at lunch (sweet instead of mashed) to the status of his cellphone (turned off, no distractions). "The mind is a crazy thing, right?" Williams explained. "If you let it control you, it will. But if you just roll with it...."
Trailing off, Williams sighs, wiped out from skating nearly 30 minutes—not to mention the emotional thrill of Carolina’s first series victory in a decade. Midnight has come and gone. The pizza has been devoured. Down the hall, a medical trainer hovers over a Hurricanes player with an IV bag, issuing small doses with a manual pump. And scribbled onto the dressing room whiteboard are perhaps the three most gratifying words: post game, recovery.
"We've got more to play," Williams says, as Mr. Game 7 turns his attention to the next Game 1.