"Game 7 feels like a flip of a coin," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said in the wake of a 4-3 loss to Montreal on Monday at the Bell Centre that forced Wednesday's winner-take-all game (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS) at Mellon Arena.
Wednesday's game is one that Pittsburgh likely never envisioned playing. Three times in this series, the Penguins have taken a one-game lead and three times the never-say-die Canadiens have clawed their way back to even.
Now, this little-engine-that-could team has forced a 50-50 game for the right to go to the Eastern Conference Finals. Pittsburgh has been to the third round in each of the past two seasons. Montreal, though, is looking to make its first trip since 1993.
"Game 7 feels like a flip of a coin."
-- Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
In Round 1, top-seeded Washington -- holders of the Presidents' Trophy as the most prolific team in the regular season -- quickly put Montreal on the ropes, winning three of the first four games. But the Canadiens refused to capitulate, running off 2-1 and 4-1 victories to force an improbable Game 7, which it won, 2-1, at Verizon Center.
Montreal's reward? A second-round date against the defending Stanley Cup champion and its roster of superstars, headlined by the two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But the Canadiens treated it as just that -- an opportunity, instead of a death sentence.
As a result, they have gone on another magical ride, this time trading body blows with the Penguins during the course of six intense, unbelievably close games. Now, they go for a knockout blow Wednesday in Game 7.
Montreal has overcome the losses of Andrei Markov and Hal Gill, the team's best two defensemen, as well as the limitations of a spotty offense, thanks to the brilliance of goalie Jaroslav Halak, the legendary exploits of Mike Cammalleri (who has 6 of Montreal's 14 goals in this series) and a team-wide commitment to stout defensive-zone play.
They believe their ride is not supposed to end here in Game 7. Who says they can't use that formula to win what has become the biggest game of the spring? Certainly not the players who have assumed the roles of giant killers.
"Now we belong and we're having fun," said Cammalleri, who has a League-best 11 goals this postseason. "Now we have an opportunity to go knock these guys off in Game 7, so let's go enjoy it."
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is not having nearly as much fun. They understand they are in a life-and-death struggle to maintain their status as a burgeoning dynasty by advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight year.
Pittsburgh won two Game 7s in last year's march to the Stanley Cup -- defeating Washington in the second round and erasing a 3-2 series deficit against Detroit in the Final -- so they have a comfort level with win-or-go-home propositions.
Yet, that experience appears to be of little comfort in the face of these miracle workers from La Belle Province.
"The experience is a good thing to draw upon and we have that from previous (experiences)," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "But now it is all down to one game and they have that as well from Round 1 in a similar situation on the road. I'm not going to give any team an upper hand in that regard. They have experience and we have experience.
"We have to mentally refocus and regroup and go back to Mellon Arena and put our best game out for Game 7."
That said, Pittsburgh believes it has the mental toughness to be ready for whatever challenges Montreal throws at them Wednesday. Whether that mental toughness is enough to carry the day remains to be seen, however.
"I think you just try to make sure you are at your best in a Game 7," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who scored his first goal of the series in Game 6. "That's all you can do because there are so many things that can happen. It's one game, so you try to go out there and play your best, just like everyone else and see where that brings you, see what the result is. You have to leave it all out there to give yourself the best chance."
For Bylsma, the challenge ahead is no different for his team than it has been for any of the 24 games it played last season en route to the Stanley Cup. They must forget the past, ignore the future and live in the moment.
"Clearly everyone in the building at Mellon will understand what is at stake -- you are either moving on or you are going home," Bylsma said. "I think that is one of the great challenges of playoff hockey: The refocus, depending on whether you have won or lost. That's the challenge for both teams. We know what it is stake. We have to go home at Mellon Arena and play our best game and be ready for that."