"No athlete, no matter the ebbs and flows of a series, no athlete goes into a Game 7 thinking they can't win. It's a great opportunity"
-- Rangers coach John Tortorella
Yet in two NHL buildings -- the Prudential Center here and the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. -- there was no denying that hockey was front-and-center.
That's what happens when you play in a Game 7. And, Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals are hosts for the only two Game 7s of the first round. First, at 7 p.m., the Capitals host the New York Rangers (Versus, TSN, RDS) in one of the more exciting series in recent memory. Thirty minutes later, in Newark, the Devils face the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. ET, Versus, TSN2, RIS) in the definition of a back-and-forth series.
The Rangers have blown a 3-1 series lead by losing the last two games by a combined score of 9-4. Now, they must win on the road to keep their dreams of an upset alive.
Yet, John Tortorella insisted on Monday morning that he will wake up with a smile Tuesday as his team prepares for a season-defining Game 7. Tortorella said his team believes it can win and that the past is the past, nothing more. Even without top defensive center Blair Betts, without consistent scoring and with Henrik Lundqvist having been pulled from each of the past two games, Tortorella believes the Rangers can beat the suddenly rampaging Capitals in their own barn. Why?
"No athlete, no matter the ebbs and flows of a series, no athlete goes into a Game 7 thinking they can't win," Tortorella said. "It's a great opportunity.
"We have the wrong people on the bus if we have to go in there with a big speech as far as getting ready to play. They will be ready to play. How it falls out, I have no idea."
Carolina coach Paul Maurice was singing the same song outside the visitor's room at Prudential Center. His team shook up its lines in Game 6 to win 4-0 and force Tuesday night's win-or-go-home game.
"We feel good about where we are at," Maurice said. "We're the sixth seed. We're the underdog. We took it to Game 7 facing elimination. There's a positive feeling about that. We're excited about the game and, at the end of the day, that is the most important element that you go out excited and let 'er rip."
Just a few hours from now, the players in both cities will do just that -- let 'er rip. They will take to the ice and they will put it all on the line for the right to live through another two weeks, maybe more, of incredible highs and lows, of physical pain and suffering, of sleepless nights and, hopefully, indescribable happiness.
But that payoff is many hours away still. For now, they can only enjoy an experience that so few hockey players have felt.
"It's obviously winner-take-all and that's a great position," says New Jersey's Mike Rupp. "As an athlete that is what you want."
Rupp should know. He has played in only one other Game 7 and that was on the biggest stage possible -- the 2003 Stanley Cup Final against Anaheim. Rupp, a rookie, scored his first playoff goal, the game-winner, in New Jersey's 3-0 victory.
Carolina's Eric Staal led the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup title, the last time that the franchise was in the playoffs. He had 28 points in 25 games, but lost out on the Conn Smythe voting to goalie Cam Ward, who has been one of the heroes of this first- round series.
Because of that experience, Staal could joke around Tuesday morning. Asked how to beat New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, Staal suggested he might shoot with his eyes closed. Humor, he says, is one way to combat the nerves that try to creep in during the day of a Game 7.
"We're staying loose and having fun," Staal said after a short and relaxed morning skate. "You grow up your whole lives to play Game 7 in the playoffs. We all know that. You dream of playing these games and being in the playoffs. These are opportunities that you go over in your head when you're a kid. We're all looking forward to it."
Fortunately, the wait for the players -- and the fans -- won't be much longer for the first Game 7s of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.