MONTREAL - It all comes down to a nervy Game 7 for the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.
After wasting two chances to put away the plucky Bruins, the Canadiens will take heart in at least being on home ice for the deciding game of the best-of-seven NHL Eastern Conference playoff series.
The Bruins and Canadiens will square off Monday night before 21,273 increasingly anxious fans to break the series 3-3 deadlock and determine which team will advance to the second round.
"We have to control our emotions and be ready from the beginning," said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. "We know that if we play the way we can and play our style, we should be OK."
"It's a lot of fun," added veteran centre Bryan Smolinski, who will play in his eighth career Game 7. "Especially being at home. Hopefully, the fans will give us a big cheer."
The Bruins tied it with a wild 5-4 win on Saturday night in Boston in which Montreal let three one-goal leads slip away, two nights after the Bruins bested the Canadiens 5-1 in Game 5 at the Bell Centre. It is the first time Boston has ever come back from a 1-3 deficit to force a Game 7.
The top-seeded Canadiens entered the series as the heavy favourites over the eighth-seeded Bruins and looked to be in control after the first four games.
Now they will play the Bruins in a Game 7 for the seventh time in history, which the NHL says is the most two clubs will have ever played against one another in a major North American sports league.
A loss would be devastating to Montreal fans, who have high expectations for perhaps the most talented Canadiens team in 15 years.
"For sure, we had a dream season and we don't want it to end," said defenceman Patrice Brisebois, who played his first Game 7 in 1992 , a 3-2 win over Hartford in which he assisted on Russ Courtnall's overtime game-winner.
"But we never thought it would be easy. You journalists were the ones who said it would be easy. We knew Boston had injuries this year, but they found a way to make the playoffs. They work hard, they respect their system. We got ourselves into a bit of trouble the last two games and now it's a chance for us to get ourselves out of it."
Montreal has won four and lost two Game 7s against Boston, most recently a 2-0 win in 2004 when the Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit under head coach Claude Julien, who is now the Bruins' coach.
"We just have to make sure that doesn't happen again," said Koivu.
Koivu returned from a fractured foot for Game 6 and had two assists. He said there was no swelling after the game and that the foot felt fine.
Interest in the series, particularly in Quebec, is sky-high. It has drawn record television audiences peaking at over two million for French-language broadcaster RDS, which has even edged out the CBC ratings.
Fans around the city have packed into bars and restaurants decked out in Montreal's red, white and blue colours to watch the series, and thousands have massed in the streets and parking lots around the Bell Centre before games.
For them, it will be heartbreak or euphoria when Game 7 ends.
"I don't think that when you go into Game 7 you feel more pressure because you finished ahead of them in the regular season," said Koivu. "With how competitive the league is now, you see seventh or eighth teams knocking teams off.
"We did it twice against Boston (in 2002 and 2004). There's a reason we finished first and were 8-0 against Boston in the regular season. That's the mindset I hope we have. You have to respect them, but I hope we're confident we can do it."
Coach Guy Carbonneau was perplexed that his team didn't produce the effort needed to put the series away in the last two games. After a third-period collapse in game 6, he pointed the finger at some veterans, who would include Alex Kovalev, whose line was on the ice for three Boston goals, and defenceman Roman Hamrlik.
"For 40 minutes we were doing the right things and then we just froze," Carbonneau said. " We didn't want to skate anymore. We were just scared to make mistakes.
"As a coach or a player, it's hard to imagine how you can't find a way to match the intensity of the other team. But this game is different. There's no tomorrow. If we don't work hard or we're not ready, we'll be on vacation."
Carbonneau says his veterans will be key in keeping a level head in the deciding game, so long as they play as a unit and don't try to take too much onto themselves.
"That's why we haven't been able to play our game," he said. "Sometimes one guy pulls this way instead of pulling together like we did all year.
"That's what we're going to talk about and make sure that when seven o'clock hits that everyone's pulling the same way."
Here are some Game 7 statistics released Sunday by the NHL:
-NHL teams have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series 224 times and have come back to win the series 20 times, or nine per cent of the time.
-Since the NHL introduced the best-of-seven format in 1939, the home team has won 76 of the 120 playoff series that have gone to seven games, or 63%.
-Boston in 0-3 in Game 7s played away from home.
- Twenty-nine of the 120 Game 7s have been decided in overtime. The last saw the Calgary Flames defeat the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 on a goal by Martin Gelinas at 1:25 to claim the Western Conference quarter-final on April 19, 2004.
-Home teams have posted a 15-14 record in the 29 overtime games, although road clubs are 10-4 since 1990.
-Montreal is 10-8 all-time in Game 7s, while Boston is 9-7.
The player with the most Game 7 experience in Monday night's contest will be Smolinski, although his teams' record in those games is 2-5. Alex Kovalev's teams won all five Game 7s he played in.
Boston's Glen Murray has seen five Game 7s and is 2-3, while defenceman Andrew Ference is 2-2.
The only goaltender on either side to experience a Game 7 is Boston back-up Alex Auld, who is 0-1.