SAN JOSE -- One way or another, Joe Pavelski will be a central storyline when the San Jose Sharks play the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round at SAP Center on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Either the forward will return to the lineup for the first time since April 23, when he was injured in a 5-4 overtime win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of the first round, or the Sharks will have to win another Game 7 to give him a chance to return in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues. Coach Peter DeBoer called him a game-time decision.
Can you imagine the jolt it would give the Sharks if their captain and leading goal-scorer in the regular season came back? Can you imagine how it would electrify the crowd if the fans saw No. 8 in uniform -- or even if they saw him waving a rally towel, like he did in the third period of a 2-1 win in Game 5 against the Avalanche here Saturday?
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To appreciate the drama of a Game 7 and the power of emotion, look back no further than two weeks ago.
San Jose had tons to play for already. It has never won the Stanley Cup in its history. Center Joe Thornton, the gray-bearded face of the franchise, has never won it and doesn't know how many chances he has left; he turns 40 on July 2. The Sharks acquired defenseman Erik Karlsson on Sept. 13 in a trade with the Ottawa Senators because general manager Doug Wilson thought they needed one more difference-maker, but this might be his only season in San Jose. He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Still, they were down 3-0 in the third period to the Golden Knights, and all of that went by the wayside when Pavelski won a face-off, took a cross-check to the chest, stumbled off-balance and got bumped.
Pavelski fell, hit his head on the ice and lay motionless. Thornton and teammate Evander Kane helped him off the ice with a trainer, Thornton holding a towel to his bleeding wound. Then Thornton told his teammates to score three goals during the ensuing major penalty. As Pavelski took staples to the head in the training room, he could hear the horn as the Sharks scored four.
"The boys, they got together and they said, 'This is for Pav,'" Thornton said that night. "So we love him. It was just a matter of will, and we willed that one for him."
It was a special moment.
The question now is whether it will be just that, a special moment, or a chapter of a larger epic.
Video: Colorado forces Game 7 with team effort to win Game 6
It says something that the Sharks have pulled themselves one win from the conference final without Pavelski. The series has been back and forth: Sharks win 5-2, Avalanche win 4-3, Sharks win 4-2, Avalanche win 3-0, Sharks win 2-1, Avalanche win 4-3 in overtime. Each game, the better team has won. It hasn't been puck luck. At times, though DeBoer has denied energy has been an issue, San Jose has looked worn down.
Now, with or without Pavelski, they've got to gut it out in Game 7.
Will goalie Martin Jones continue to be good, as he has been in this series? Which Brent Burns will show up on defense, the one who has struggled or the one who has excelled at both ends of the ice? Will Marc-Edouard Vlasic shut down, or at least limit, Colorado forwards Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen? Will Karlsson make the difference? Will center Logan Couture score more clutch goals? Will the depth players be better than Colorado's as they're supposed to be, after they weren't in Game 6?
In theory, the Sharks should have a good shot at the Stanley Cup, especially if Pavelski returns. They finished sixth in the NHL in the regular season with 101 points. Among the other remaining teams, only the Boston Bruins finished better, tied for second in the League with 107 points. The Blues and Carolina Hurricanes each had 99 points. The Avalanche had 90.
It's up to them to seize this opportunity, or that epic Game 7 rally will have led to a bitter Game 7 disappointment.