MONTREAL – The race to four has become a race to one.
After six highly competitive, tight games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens in their conference semifinals series, both teams find themselves landlocked in a 3-3 tie.
And now one game is left to decide the fate of both franchises, as a winner-takes-all Game 7 will be played Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Mellon Arena to determine which team will earn a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Every shift, every hit, every shot, every save, every scoring chance could be the difference between winning and losing, the difference between advancement and extinction.
“You just try to make sure you’re at your best in a Game 7,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “That’s all you can do. There are so many things that can happen. It’s one game. You try to go out there and play your best just like everyone else and see where that brings you, see what the result is. You have to try to leave it all out there and give yourself the best chance.”
There’s obviously a lot more on the line. It’s do or die. - Bill Guerin
“There’s obviously a lot more on the line,” veteran Bill Guerin said. “It’s do or die.”
Thanks to their higher seeding, the No. 4 Penguins will host the defining game of the series against No. 8 Montreal – a right Pittsburgh earned after completing one of the most successful regular seasons in club history with 101 points in the standings.
“You play all year to position yourself in the best position that you can as far as home ice; we have that,” forward Mike Rupp said. “We just have to go off the fans in Pittsburgh. They’re going to be loud. They’re going to be great, and we expect to do the same.”
The heart and soul of the City of Champions will no doubt be charged and ready to go. The Canadiens can expect an unfriendly welcome from the 17,132 Penguins faithful inside Mellon Arena – which will be the team’s 166th consecutive sell out – as well as the thousands gathering outside to watch the contest on the Tribtron and support their beloved troops.
Guerin knows from his 17 NHL seasons how important it is to have the hometown fans behind you – cheering, yelling and supporting – in critical games, especially when all the chips are on the table.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” he said. “Our fans will be fired up for it.”
The battle-tested Penguins, who have won the most playoff games (37) in the NHL in the last three years, are no strangers to these intense confrontations.
Twice last season Pittsburgh found itself in a Game 7 situation – both of which were played in hostile environments on the road.
The Penguins easily defeated the higher-seeded Washington Capitals at Verizon Center in a 6-2 victory thanks to two Sidney Crosby
goals and a momentum changing save early in the game by Marc-Andre Fleury
on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway.
Then in the Stanley Cup Final – in the greatest challenge in the young Penguins’ lives – the team stared down a pressure-filled, Cup-crowning Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.
Maxime Talbot proved to be the hero by scoring both Penguins’ goals in a 2-1 Stanley Cup-winning triumph, with some assist from Fleury’s 23 saves – none bigger than a diving stop on future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom’s shot as the game clock was running out.
Though everyone remembers Talbot and Fleury’s performances in that contest, but what people may forget is how the Penguins banded together as a team – especially after losing Crosby to an injury in the second period – and played one of their most disciplined, defensive games of the season.
In dire circumstances, the Penguins rose to the occasion. Pittsburgh has made a habit of playing its best when colliding with adversity.
The Penguins will no doubt draw upon their Game 7 successes last year, but the Canadiens can look back to a mere two weeks ago for their own inspiration. It was then that Montreal upset to NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals in Game 7 on the road with a nail-biting 2-1 victory.
“We’re not going to edge anybody out experience-wise for a Game 7 now,” Guerin said. “We played our share last year but these guys played one last series. So that’s a wash.”
“The experience is a good thing to draw upon, and we have that,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “But it’s also now down to one game. They have experience as well from Round 1 in a similar situation on the road. I’m not going to give any team an upper hand in that regard. They have experience; we have experience.
We have to mentally refocus, regroup and go back to Mellon Arena, and put our best game out for Game 7 - Dan Bylsma
“This is one game to see who is on to the conference finals. They have experience and with winning (Game 6), I’m sure they’ll try to build off that momentum and go back and talk about their Game 7 against Washington. We have to mentally refocus, regroup and go back to Mellon Arena, and put our best game out for Game 7.”
And so the greatest festivity in professional sports – Game 7 – will commence Wednesday evening.
One team will take a major step in its Stanley Cup championship quest. The other will finish its final game of the season, haunted by the memories and questions of what if and what could have been.
When the puck clanks off the center ice circle, both teams will play with full force – as if there is no tomorrow.
“We have one game left,” Crosby said, “and it’s the biggest one yet for both teams.”
One game to separate the contenders from the obsolete.