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Rafalski right at home in Game 7 pressure cookers

by Larry Wigge
DETROIT -- Brian Rafalski said his fascination for Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs actually started before he played in his first NHL game with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000.

That might not have been the answer that many reporters were looking for, considering that Rafalski goes into Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night with a 5-1 record in seventh games. But he had a story to tell and was bound and determined to tell it.

"I was back home from the University of Wisconsin and I managed to get a ticket for the Red Wings vs. the Sharks," he explained. "I'm in the stands. Thinking good thoughts about the Wings. Game's tied 2-2. Chris Osgood stones Igor Larionov on a breakaway and then …"

There's a deafening pause, before Rafalski added, "But then, in a moment all Red Wings fans would like to forget, Ozzie had trouble handling the puck at the side of his net and Jamie Baker swoops in and scores.

"I think it was at that point that I realized just how high and how low you can get in a Game 7."

That Baker goal with 6:35 left came on April 30, 1994.

Rafalski chose not to regale us with a Scott Stevens story from Game 7 of the 2003 Cup Final that the Devils won or even the 2001 Final, when the Devils lost to Colorado in Game 7.

"You win and lose as a team and it's a feeling you'll never forget, but that night in 1994 when Jamie Baker scored, I kind of felt all alone," he said.

It's that kind of passion that has made Rafalski such a determined and successful player over the years, first for the Devils and for the last two seasons with the Red Wings.

Funny, since most teams thought that, at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, Rafalski was too small to be drafted by an NHL team and certainly too small to play on this kind of big-game stage.

Not big enough? Rafalski always has had the quick feet, great speed, the hands of a surgeon and the creative mind it takes to be a winner. Mix in heart, soul and intellect -- he graduated from high school at Madison (Wis.) East at 17 and earned his degree in agriculture and economics at the University of Wisconsin -- and you've got yourself a champion.

"You don't just find defensemen with his skills on trees," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's like turning on the ignition of a powerful car the way Raffi and Nick Lidstrom work the transition game and spark our power play from the point."

Rafalski said there will be no dazzling speech inside the Red Wings' dressing room before Game 7 against Pittsburgh.

"The confidence in this locker room is so high," he said. "No one has to speak up. No one has to make a big speech."

Rafalski and the Red Wings are counting on their experience to win out in this battle against the young Penguins skills.

"It will be gut-check time for a lot of us," Rafalski said. "Emotions will be high. We'll all have to control them. Nervousness? It's allowed in this situation. In fact, nervousness can be good. I've always found it makes you sharper."

Three Stanley Cups in seven NHL seasons gives Rafalski the right to pick and choose what he thinks are important memories. No one has to tell him about the extra passion and emotion on the ice in April, May and June.

"It's the playoffs," he said with a huge grin. "It doesn't matter if you're playing shinny for bragging rights with a few neighbors as a kid, in high school, college, in Europe or the NHL, it's the time when championships are won.

"It's all about being motivated to win … and not wanting to settle for anything but the Stanley Cup. That was our mentality in New Jersey and it's the same in Detroit."

The Dearborn, Michigan, native laughed when someone told him he already sounded pretty fired up.

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final Gear"That's funny," he said. "A lot of people look at me and don't consider me fiery or a fighter. But I can take you back even further than 1994 for an even better example.

"It was 1991, I'm playing in a high school game in St. Paul and some guy on the other team kept bumping into our goalie. I went after the guy. I'll never forget it, because I was thrown out of the game and spent the last two periods watching in the stands with my dad."

Rafalski's eyes were flaring at the memory. Since then, he's become fiery. He's become smarter. More skilled. Creative.

Best of all, Brian Rafalski won't have to be in the stands to watch this Game 7. He'll be able to control his emotions and help the Red Wings.

As he told us, it's playoff time, bragging rights are on the line and a championship is there to be won.

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