When the two-month marathon climaxes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the stakes are pushed to their extremes. The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues dreamt of an opportunity like the one they'll have at TD Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). One way or another, they'll have to live with the result.
"Winning and losing, it sticks with you forever," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "You don't forget everything that happens when you win, and you definitely don't forget what happens when you lose. Unfortunately, there's going to be both sides of that tomorrow, and we'll see how it plays out."
The Bruins' core has experienced each side before.
Marchand, goalie Tuukka Rask, defenseman Zdeno Chara and centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci helped defeat the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, the last time the Cup Final went to Game 7. Pictures of their celebration adorn the locker room to remind them of the rewards that could await.
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But they also lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. That wasn't Game 7. It was Game 6. But they were leading in the third period, 1:17 from Game 7, when the Blackhawks scored twice in 17 seconds and won 3-2. Just like that, it was over.
It took them six years to return to the Cup Final.
At Media Day before this series, Marchand said: "It was so sweet to win, but it hurts to lose. I mean, that was devastating. That still hurts to this day. I mean, I probably look back more on the loss and what I would do differently than the win. So that's something …
"You lose something like this, you're that close, you work that hard, it never leaves you."
Marchand expounded on that Tuesday. He was 23 when the Bruins won in 2011, at the end of his first full NHL season. He's 31 now.
"You realize when you get to this point how hard it actually is, especially the longer you've been around the League," he said. "You look at some guys that have been around a long time and how few opportunities you get. ...
"It's extremely tough just to get to this point here and to win is even harder than that. Once you lose, you realize how close it is. You get a taste, but you don't get that victory, you don't get to feel all the sensations of winning, it's extremely difficult."
Think of the history and the investment made on both sides.
The Bruins have won the Cup six times, but they have won it once since 1972 despite playing 420 playoff games since then, more than any other team. The Blues have never won it despite playing 390 playoff games since entering the NHL in 1967-68, fifth in the League in that timeframe behind the Bruins (470), Montreal Canadiens (456), Philadelphia Flyers (433) and Chicago Blackhawks (399).
Video: Marchand wants to repeat 2011 by winning Game 7 again
This season, the Bruins traveled overseas to play the Calgary Flames in the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games and defeated the Blackhawks in the 2019 Bridgestone Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round, defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in six in the second and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference final.
Bergeron, 33, gave a speech before Game 6 imploring his teammates not to let their childhood dream end, and after they won 5-1, defenseman Charlie McAvoy, 21, said the thought of it being over was "terrifying."
This will be their 24th game in the playoffs and their 106th in the regular season and playoffs combined. Chara, 42, is playing with a jaw guard after taking a puck to the face in Game 4 of this series, a visible example of what players do -- whatever it takes.
"You enjoy those bumps and bruises, those achy feelings," Bruins center Charlie Coyle said. "I think it makes you feel like you're really working toward something. And then when it pays off and you get to this point and can make something happen with it, I don't think you feel that stuff anymore.
"Whatever happens, this is why you do it. You put everything into this and see where it gets you."
The Blues replaced coach Mike Yeo with Craig Berube on Nov. 19 and were last in the NHL on Jan. 3. Starting rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, adopting "Gloria" as their victory anthem, they rallied to make the playoffs. They defeated the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the Western Conference First Round; the Dallas Stars in seven in the second, scoring the decisive goal in double overtime; and the San Jose Sharks in six in the conference final.
This will be their 26th game in the playoffs and their 108th in the regular season and playoffs combined, tying NHL records in each category.
Video: It All Comes Down To This. Game 7
Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester has played 1,184 regular-season games without winning the Cup, third among active players behind Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau (1,657) and Sharks center Joe Thornton (1,566). Forward Alexander Steen has played 963, after his father, Thomas, played 950. Forward David Perron has played 779 and is in his third stint with the Blues. He lost to the Washington Capitals in the Cup Final a year ago as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights.
"It's definitely hard when you lose, because you work for this your whole life," Perron said. "So you want to make the best of it, definitely."
No matter what, this will be the greatest season in St. Louis history. Still, at this point …
"It would be a shame if we lost," said Blues forward Pat Maroon, a St. Louis native. "It's an achievement to get this far. Obviously it's exciting. But everyone wants to win, and we've got to win tomorrow. That's the bottom line."
Listen: Game 7 preview from NHL Fantasy on Ice podcast