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Game 7 rookies feeling relaxed

Ten players from Lightning, Penguins expected to play in their first seventh game in Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek has a plan in mind for how he'll treat the hours leading up to the first Game 7 of his life.

"It's going to be like the first six games," he said, "where I'm going to probably go home, eat something, and then take a little napperoonski and be good to go."

Will he be able to get through his nap -- sorry, his napperoonski -- without thinking about what's ahead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) on Thursday?

"Way easier said than done for sure," Koekkoek said.

He's not alone. 

Koekkoek is one of three Lightning players expected in the lineup Thursday who never have played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was the backup to Ben Bishop in the Game 7s the Lightning played in the 2015 playoffs. Forward Jonathan Drouin was scratched for both of them.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm2: Drouin ties the game with perfect shot

Drouin at least played in two Game 7s in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as well as a Memorial Cup Final. Vasilevskiy never has played a Game 7 in North America.

On the other side the Penguins have seven players who are expected to play in their first Game 7 -- rookie goalie Matt Murray, rookie forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, and defensemen Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz.  

Sheary and Dumoulin have Game 7 experience in the American Hockey League. Murray, Rust and Cole have never played a Game 7 at any level. 

Schultz's last Game 7 was in 2008, when he was in the British Columbia Hockey League. 

Kuhnhackl's only Game 7 experience came with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League in 2011.

"That was my first year [in North America]. I was 17 and in a different country with different culture," said Kuhnhackl, who is from Landshut, Germany. "Now that I've been over here for a long time, been through injuries and trades and suspensions, all that stuff, I don't think I'm as nervous as I was back then."

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Sheary beats Lundqvist from the slot

None of the players seemed nervous after their respective morning skates. Obviously Koekkoek wasn't. He was using words like napperoonski instead of nap. 

"I'm excited," Koekkoek said. "I'm thankful that I'm here. But you have to treat it like any other game. You can't get too high on things. That's what I'll try to do."

That seemed to be the general sentiment from all of the Game 7 rookies. 

Cole said the closest he's come to a Game 7 was Game 3 of the best-of-3 Central Collegiate Hockey Association quarterfinals in 2008 when he was a freshman at Notre Dame. He wasn't comparing that game to what's ahead of him Thursday, but the experience at least gives him an idea of what to expect.

"Obviously the gravity of the game, of every play, is exponentially higher than it is in Game 1, which is exponentially higher than it is in the regular season," Cole said. "You're aware of the situation but you can't let the situation dictate your play, your thought process, because you can almost paralyze yourself thinking, 'Oh my God, it's a Game 7. Oh my God, this is it, don't screw it up.' You can almost paralyze yourself. You just have to go out and play the way you have been leading up to that Game 7, because you need to make sure you don't psyche yourself out. I think you can do that if you think, 'Oh my God, this is Game 7. This is insane.'"

The Penguins already faced a win-or-else game, needing to win Game 6 at Amalie Arena on Tuesday. They won 5-2 to force Game 7, and having that occur so recently could be an advantage for them.  

"I think it helps out a lot of guys in here that we were in an elimination game just two days ago so it's the same thing now," Rust said. "We've got to come out with the same mindset, same energy, same feeling. Just maybe ramp it up a bit because both teams will have that sense of urgency."

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Vasilevskiy stops Bonino's chance

Sheary and Dumoulin saw firsthand how that urgency can manifest itself when they played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins' AHL affiliate, in a Game 7 against Providence, the Boston Bruins' affiliate, in the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2014. 

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had a 5-0 lead by 7:16 of the second period, including a goal from Sheary. Providence scored the next four goals but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held on in the final 10 minutes for the win.

"That game was a whirlwind and we almost lost it," Sheary said. "I can take a lot of points from that, just to not sit back at any point because any team can come back. Nothing is safe. Guys are putting it all out there."

And as Dumoulin noted, it should be even more "amped up" at Consol Energy Center because this Game 7 is for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Final. The stakes never have been higher for any of these Game 7 rookies.

"Obviously it's the biggest game I've ever been in," Koekkoek said.

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