For a hockey fan, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final is like waiting for Christmas: It seems like the big day takes forever to get there, but when it does, it's well worth the wait.
Of course, Christmas comes just once a year. A Final series that goes the maximum seven games comes along infrequently. Since the NHL expanded from the Original Six teams in 1967, the championship round has gone the distance just eight times, including this year's Final between Detroit and Pittsburgh. If the Stanley Cup Final is really the NHL's two best teams facing off for the championship, it seems logical that there would be more than eight seven-gamers in a span of 42 years — after all, baseball's World Series has gone the distance 14 times in the same span (though not since 2002).
But baseball has just eight teams in the postseason and only two rounds of playoffs before the World Series, so there's a much smaller likelihood of upsets in the early going. In contrast, with three rounds and potentially 21 games to play just to get to the Final, at least one of the teams is often worn out from the journey.
"Just getting to the Finals is a grueling trip," said now-retired New Jersey Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko, whose team lost its bid to repeat as champions in 2001 in a seven-game final against Colorado, but who went out a winner two years later when the Devils outlasted Anaheim in 2003. "You've got to win three seven-game series just to get there, and there are a lot of Game 7s within the conference. By the time you get to the Stanley Cup Finals, one of the teams is often worn down. The other team often has a little more juice left in the tank than the other. That's why the Final usually don't go to seven games."
Upsets are not uncommon in the early rounds, where a team that hasn't had a good regular season can atone for six months of struggles with two weeks of brilliance (think Anaheim beating San Jose this year). Conversely, regular-season success means nothing in the postseason except the chance to open at home and play a seventh game in your own building.
"Very often, you get an unexpected team against an 'expected' team in the Final," said Neil Smith, whose 1994 New York Rangers had to go seven games in the Final before beating Vancouver and ending their 54-year championship drought. "A lot of times, through attrition, or injuries, or a bad bounce, one of the favorites will get knocked out early. That leaves one clear-cut favorite, and that team usually wins in short order."
Of the seven previous Finals that have gone the distance since expansion, only two (1987 and 2001) have matched the regular-season conference champs.
"There should be more," said Ron Hextall, whose goaltending carried the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers to the limit against Edmonton before the Oilers won the Cup, "In theory, you've got the best teams in the sport. It's the pinnacle of the game. I wish there were more."