Messier Chara with Cup Tonight bug

SUNRISE, Fla. -- When it comes to hockey’s version of Seventh Heaven, you won’t find too many people who have more expertise on the subject than Mark Messier, Zdeno Chara and Pete DeBoer.

From the pressure of an all-or-nothing game, to trying to control the butterflies churning in your gut, these three iconic figures know what it’s like to succeed on the NHL’s grandest stage that is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now it’s time for the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers to occupy that spotlight in what stands to be the ultimate theater the sport can offer. With the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final deadlocked at 3-3, the trophy will be in the building in all its glistening glory Monday, awaiting to be awarded to the winner of Game 7 at Amerant Bank Arena (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC).

The Panthers will be attempting to win their first title in the 30-year history of the franchise. The Oilers are trying to become only the second team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the Final to win the championship, joining the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Obviously, only one of these scenarios will come to fruition.

In order to examine what awaits, elicited the services of Hall of Famer Messier, Boston Bruins great Chara and Dallas Stars coach DeBoer as part of a Game 7 roundtable. This much is certain: these three know of what they speak.

Messier won the Stanley Cup five times with the Oilers (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990) and helped the New York Rangers end a 54-year drought by leading them to the title in 1994. In the process, his teams went 7-2 in Game 7s, including two in the Final (1987, 1994).

Chara, the former Boston Bruins captain who was kind enough to offer his thoughts via a phone interview from Europe on Sunday, played in the previous two Game 7s in the Final and has experienced the jubilation of winning and devastation of losing in those situations. In 2011, he hoisted the Cup after the Bruins defeated the host Vancouver Canucks 4-0. In 2019, he and his Boston teammates were on the losing end of a 4-1 victory for the St. Louis Blues at TD Garden.

After the Stars went the distance to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights and eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Western Conference First Round, DeBoer’s coaching record in Game 7s is a perfect 8-0. He’s yet to lead a team to the Stanley Cup, but his record in deciding games is nevertheless impressive.

Add it all up, and these three, like the rest of us, are anticipating a special night in south Florida.

“The two greatest words in sports are 'Game 7,'” Messier said. “And they’re the two greatest words for a reason. It’s the ultimate live reality TV.

“Maybe we shouldn’t call it 'sudden death.' Maybe we should call it 'sudden opportunity.'"

Much like it is having this trio give their candid insights on what it takes to be successful in a Game 7.

First off, the Oilers have come back from a 3-0 deficit in the series by winning three straight. To that end, is there such a thing as momentum heading into a Game 7?

DeBoer: “I’d actually rather go into a Game 7 off a loss or a couple of losses rather than a win. I think the character in your group, well, the teams that I’ve had that have made deep playoff runs or won Game 7s, I find if you’re coming off a loss, the good teams, the teams that deserve to win, find a way to correct what’s wrong, dig in and find a way to win. It’s almost easier coming off a loss than trying to control in the dressing room the team that’s coming off a win where things have become a little easier for them.”

Messier: “Momentum is an interesting topic. You could make a case that the Oilers have the momentum by winning three straight. But the Panthers could make a case of why wouldn't they have momentum since they were here last year too. They had a great year and they found a way to get back all the way here. The reality is, just because a team has momentum going into this game doesn’t necessarily equate to victory. This victory is going to be earned. It’s 60 minutes that will define a lifetime. And for me, I never thought about the concept of momentum going into a Game 7. I knew I had to play well, the team had to play well and we had to have the belief that we could win. That belief means more than anything.”

Chara: “Momentum? I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s a difficult thing to overcome. You go into it with the mindset that you play the same way that made you successful during the regular season. At the same time you understand what’s at stake. I really do think a Game 7 is more a mental than a physical thing.”

If not momentum, what do you think is one of the biggest keys to success on the Game 7 stage?

Chara: “To me, one of the most important factors is all about whoever scores first. Most of the time I feel the team that does that can start dictating the game.”

DeBoer: “It might be obvious to say goaltending and special teams, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Power plays, yes, but penalty killing, well, I think the success the Oilers have had while short-handed in the postseason is a big reason for their success. And goaltending. Look at our Game 6 of the Western Conference Final this year against the Oilers. We outshot Edmonton 35-10, it was our best game of the entire playoffs, and we were still eliminated 2-1. Stuart Skinner stood on his head, and Connor McDavid made a couple of amazing plays. I think Skinner is going to have to have the best game of his life. Can you tell I’m picking the Panthers to win?”

Does home ice matter?

Chara: “I don’t know. People are always trying to make that case for one side or another. It’s hard to say. I don’t really think so. At least that’s my experience. We won Game 7 of the Final on the road in Vancouver. We lost Game 7 against St. Louis at home. If you get ahead on the road, you can make the home crowd tense and that’s a good thing.”

Messier: “Five of the Stanley Cups I was part of, were won on home ice. I always liked to play at home. Does it guarantee anything? No. If it was my choice, would I want to play at home? Yes. Would I be afraid to play on the road for a Game 7? No. Both teams are going to make an argument. The Panthers will say they worked all season to get home ice advantage for a situation like this. The Oilers will say they’ve won in Florida already in this series and can do it again. Personally, if I had my choice, I would play at home.”

Coaches and players always give the prototypical answer that Game 7s have to be treated as “just another game.” Given what’s on the line Monday, is that possible?

DeBoer: “I think teams can reset to their identity and play that game. When you get to the playoffs, whether it’s the first round or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, you play anywhere from 90 to 105 games. So you have an identity as a team. You know what your best game looks like. (Panthers coach) Paul Maurice knows this. You’ve got to fight the urge to overcoach and make your team believe to play to the identity they’ve played with all season when they were playing well and won all those games and opened a 3-0 lead in the Final. And he knows that. That experience of a veteran coach, that’s really helpful in those moments.”

Messier: “Yes it is. And it’s simple. You have to trust yourself, your teammates, and how you are going to win the game. Easier said than done? Maybe. But the team that can follow that blueprint without straying has the best chance to be successful. Sure, there’s going to be nerves, butterflies, all of that. But once the puck is dropped, even with the stakes so high, it’s the same game you played all year. The team that doesn’t let the moment get too big for it, more often than not, that’s the one that comes out ahead in the end.”

When all is said and done, what is it like to win Game 7 of a Final and get the opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup?

Chara: “It’s one of the best moments you can have as an athlete and a teammate. It’s the ultimate goal as a team. And to have the privilege of picking it up and handing it to the team, it’s one of the best feelings you can have as an athlete.”

In your case, Mark, of the six Cups you helped win, the one in 1994 with the Rangers seems to be the one people remember most. Why do you think it resonates so strongly to this day?

Messier: “Well, as everyone knows, it snapped a 54-year Cup drought for the franchise, which made it so memorable. All the great players, the great years, the incredible fans, and for so many years it kept resulting in disappointment and heartbreak. Fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, the great game of hockey had forged all these bonds, and yet generations of those Rangers fans had been disappointed. To be able to be in Madison Square Garden and finally galvanize all that passion and energy under one roof, it’s just one of those special moments you never ever forget in your life. I know it wasn’t Game 7, but Game 6 in Edmonton Friday, with the energy and atmosphere and electricity, it was one of the most special moments in sports I’ve ever experienced. And on Monday night, in Game 7, we could have another moment of a lifetime too.”

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