By the end of the day on Wednesday somebody’s life will be changed forever. A hero will step to the forefront for either the Penguins or Montreal Canadiens to score the big goal, make the huge defensive play or have the game-changing save that will lift him into team lore for an eternity.
That’s the stakes when it comes down to a win-or-go-home Game 7. The cream rises to the top and lives to fight another day, while the losers have to deal with the pain that comes with summer beginning earlier than they would prefer.
In these instances it’s easy to expect a player with the big-game resume of a Sidney Crosby
– who notched two goals and an assist in his first-ever Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in round two last spring and tallied the winning goal for Canada in the Gold Medal Game at the 2010 Winter Olympics – to rise to the occasion. That’s what the great players do – it’s what makes them who they are.
At the same, if you go back and take a look at previous Game 7s throughout the course of history, it’s not always the Crosby’s, Mario Lemieux’s and Wayne Gretzky’s who score the biggest goals on hockey’s grandest stage. As teams focus their defensive game plans to contain the top players, and have that added focus each time they step onto the ice, it opens the door for role players to quickly become household names.
“A lot of times I think that it is just the quality of the team that allows individuals to stand up and be heroes when you might expect your headliners to get that status for Game 7,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We want to play a way that will give just about anybody in our lineup a chance to be the hero tonight. … It’s the way that our team is going to play, and if good teams play that well, then it gives just about anybody a chance to be that hero on any given night. You’ve seen that from good teams in the past.”
Penguins’ fans probably need no refresher course when it comes to unheralded players taking on the leading role in decisive Game 7 victories.
During the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup championship season in 1991 – you know the team loaded with six future Hall of Famers and three more potential ones in Jaromir Jagr, Mark Recchi and Tom Barrasso – it was two of the most unlikely candidates who secured the franchise’s first Game 7 victory at the then-Civic Arena, a 4-0 defeat of the New Jersey Devils in the Patrick Division Semifinals.
Checking-line center Jiri Hrdina, who was acquired earlier in the season from Calgary more to help mentor his fellow countryman Jagr, scored the only two postseason goals of his 35-game playoff career with the Penguins, while backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo made 27 saves in place of the injured Barrasso.
Ten year later at the RSBC Arena in Buffalo, on a team loaded with star-power that included the likes of Lemieux, Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang, when the Penguins needed the dramatic overtime winner against Dominik Hasek it was none other than defensive defenseman Darius Kasparaitis who joined the rush late, took a drop pass from Lang and sneaked a shot past Hasek before being mobbed by teammates after diving face-first onto his belly to celebrate in one of the most-captivating images in Penguins history.
While none of those players will ever have the lofty standing among the fans within the organization hierarchy (OK, Kasparaitis is close thanks to some pretty thunderous hits), their place will never be forgotten in Penguins lore.
Who are some of the most likely candidates from this year’s team to join the likes of Hrdina, Pietrangelo and Kasparaitis as Game 7 heroes? The obvious place to start would be Maxime Talbot and Mike Rupp.
Just 11 months ago it was Talbot who added to his ‘Superstar’ legacy by scoring both Pittsburgh goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory and the franchise’s third championship.
“I think it’s just that these are the Stanley Cup playoffs and that is the great thing about the playoffs – it always seems like there are different players stepping up at different times. Over the course of history it has always been role players who have stepped up and made a difference. It gives all of us a chance to fulfill a dream.” - Mike Rupp
“It’s obviously something that you take with you,” said Talbot on Wednesday following the Penguins morning skate. “In a situation like that – it doesn’t mean that I’m going to score two more goals tonight. It means that I have played well before in that situation, and I’m going to try to do my best again tonight.”
While many people might not have expected just an offensive display by Talbot on that stage, the gritty winger did have nine previous playoff tallies, including a two-goal effort in Game 4 against Detroit, so maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that he delivered when he did.
Perhaps even more unlikely than Talbot’s night last June was the one Mike Rupp had on June 9, 2003 in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final when he played for the New Jersey Devils against the Anaheim Ducks (and a veteran winger with the last name of Bylsma).
Rupp, a rookie with 26 regular-season and three postseason contests on his resume before that game, was in the lineup because injuries had hit the Devils forward corps. Rupp hardly looked like a 23-year-old novice with just one playoff assist to his credit as he scored the game-winning goal for New Jersey and assisted on its other two tallies in a 3-0 Cup-clinching defeat.
Seven years later Rupp said that nights like he had in 2003 are what make the Stanley Cup playoffs the most unique tournament in all of professional sports.
“I think it’s just that these are the Stanley Cup playoffs and that is the great thing about the playoffs – it always seems like there are different players stepping up at different times,” Rupp said. “Over the course of history it has always been role players who have stepped up and made a difference. It gives all of us a chance to fulfill a dream.”
At the end of the night on Wednesday somebody will have the chance to fulfill that boyhood dream of being the Game 7 hero. The Penguins hope that player is wearing black and gold. Whether it’s Crosby, Talbot, Rupp or somebody we’d never expect, the Penguins certainly have no shortage of worthy candidates.