Posted by: mdegeorge | June 15, 2011

Memories of Game 7s past

There’s nothing better than a Game 7. And there’s nothing better than playoff hockey. Combine the two, add a pair of teams who decidedly disdain each other, throw in a century-old trophy that has defined the life of many a man, and you’ve got the potential for some classic sports theater.

The NHL has had a rash of good playoff fortune in recent years, playing host to its sixth Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 in the last 10 finals tonight when the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins lace up their skates in British Columbia tonight. This streak comes after a shocking dearth of long-series drama for many years in the 1990s, which had only one Finals series go to a seventh game – one lost by those Canucks to Mark Messier and the New York Rangers in 1994 – and five, including four straight from ’95-’98, were sweeps.

Tim Thomas. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The NHL has also gotten some wonderful finals combinations, awakening new markets like Carolina, Tampa Bay and Anaheim, revitalizing traditional markets like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Jersey, and even a healthy presence from Original 6 team like Chicago and Detroit.

This year’s final has all the makings of another classic with storylines galore. The NHL has its dream: A title-starved Original 6 team without a Cup since 1972 against a title-devoid team without a title since its admittance to the NHL in 1970. The added bonus for Vancouver is that it’s playing to become the first Canadian team to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup since the Canadiens in 1993.

The on-ice drama hasn’t disappointed. Will goaltending justice prevail? Tim Thomas has allowed just eight goals in six games, losing a troika or heartbreakers in Vancouver while dominating in Boston, and is likely win the Conn Smythe as playoff most valuable player win or lose. Roberto Luongo meanwhile, was atrocious in Boston, getting pulled twice with a goals against average hovering around 7. Each team has had a player sidelined for the rest of the series – and likely beyond – in questionable fashion: Boston’s Nathan Horton thanks to Vancouver spare Aaron Rome, and Vancouver’s Mason Raymond thanks to Johnny Boychuk. And that’s not to mention overtime hero Alexandre Burrow’s “Bitegate”. Each offense has proven the ability to explode at times or be sedate for long stretches. It could make for a pulsating Game 7.

To help the excitement reach a fever pitch, I figured I’d look back at the last five Game 7s and rate them in terms of entertainment value.

No. 5: 2003, New Jersey 3, Anaheim 0

Despite the penchant for New York area networks to replay this decisive game, it was a snoozer that lacked the excitement of the clincher in Game 6 three years earlier capped by Jason Arnott’s highlight-reel, double-overtime winner. Marin Brodeur was masterful, pitching his third shutout of the series and rebounding from a five-goal thrashing in Game 6. It was a night where it seemed the Ducks could play until dawn without breaching the Devils defense. The game is notable for the game-winner by Mike Rupp, an unlikely hero who was the first player in Stanley Cup history to have his first career postseason goal clinch a Cup. The other star of the night was Jeff Freisen, who burned his former team with two goals to win his long-awaited first Cup. Despite the loss, Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose team supported him with a paltry eight goals in the series, became only the sixth player in Cup history to win the Conn Smythe trophy on a team that didn’t hoist the Cup.

No. 4: 2001, Colorado 3, New Jersey 1

For sentimental value, this one ranks up high. But as a fan, I couldn’t shake the feeling that even in Game 7, the fix was somehow in to make sure Ray Bourque’s Avalanche lifted the Cup to cap the Hall of Fame defenseman’s career. Both teams got to the Finals as the top seeds in their respective conferences, the Devils mowing down the Cinderella Penguins led by the rejuvenated Mario Lemieux in the conference finals. It took a stellar effort from Patrick Roy to resist early pressure in Game 6 in New Jersey to even force a final game. The offense rocked Martin Broduer in Game 6 and continued in Game 7, with Alex Tanguay scoring in the first period, adding a second goal in the second period and Joe Sakic also finding the back of the net. Roy held down the fort, despite a Petr Sykora goal, to secure the title.

No. 3: 2006, Carolina 3, Edmonton 1

The Oilers represented the consummate underdogs in the series. The no. 8 seed out of the West, the Oilers were the first team to ever advance to a Cup Final from that low of a seed. They went down 3-1 in the series. They went down 3-1 facing elimination in Game 5 before a furious comeback that was capped by Fernando Pisani and the first overtime shorthanded goal in Stanley Cup Finals history. They had starting goalie Dwayne Roloson knocked out in Game 1, turning things over to journeyman Jussi Markkanen, who managed a shutout in Game 6. But the story was Cam Ward, who was sensational throughout the playoffs. Only a late goal by Pisani got past the rookie in Game 7, a win that capped a Conn Smythe season, the first Conn Smythe for a rookie since Ron Hextall in 1987. Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle scored early goals, while Justin Williams iced things with an empty-netter for the veteran team that earned Cups for such household names as Rod Brind’Amour, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight, Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican.

No. 2: 2004, Tampa Bay 2, Calgary 1

With the lockout looming on the horizon, the Lightning and Flames combined for a heated series that gave fans something to miss. The teams alternated wins in the first four games before Oleg Saprykin popped up for a rare overtime goal to put Calgary one win away from a Cup. But two goals from Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards in regulation and a double-OT winner by Martin St. Louis pushed the series to the max. In Game 7, Ruslan Fedotenko scored on either side of the first intermission to stake the Lightning to a 2-0 lead. That’s when Nikolai Khabibulin erected the “Bulin Wall”, keeping out wave after wave of Calgary pressure. He finished with only 17 saves, but the attack was constantly menacing even if not always with shots on goal. Craig Conroy did get one goal back for the Flames and Marcus Nilson missed a golden chance to send it to overtime late, but the Lightning were able to hoist the final Stanley Cup of the old NHL era.

No. 1: 2009, Pittsburgh 2, Detroit 1

Ok, as a Pens fans, I might be a bit bias. But it was an epic series nonetheless. The Wings looked unbeatable on home ice in Games 1 and 2, causing many in the Pens camp to think a repeat of the previous year’s six-game romp was inevitable. A 5-0 shellacking in Game 5 back at Joe Louis Arena after the Pens evened the series at home also dimmed hopes. But the Pens survived Game 6 thanks to a troika of last-minute desperation saves by defenseman Rob Scuderi, who along with Hal Gill, played out of his mind that postseason. In Game 7, the Red Wings had the better of play for most of the first period until Maxime Talbot jumped on a turnover and fired a laser past Chris Osgood completely against the run of play in the opening 80 seconds of the second period. Talbot scored again 10 minutes later, and though Jonathan Ericsson pulled one back after the midway point of the third period, the Pens held off a feverish Red Wings attack. The exclamation point on the game, series and season came courtesy of Marc-Andre Fleury’s last-second diving save to keep out Niklas Lidstrom’s bid at an equalizer and was one of the most impressive saves in NHL history. It sealed the first victory by a road team in a Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 since 1971 and the first win by a road team in a title-clincher in any of the four major sports since the 1979 World Series.

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