It all comes down to Game 7. Everything that has gone on up until now in the Dallas Stars' Western Conference Quarterfinals series against the Vancouver Canucks is irrelevant at this point: whoever wins Game 7 Monday night at GM Place (8pm, my27) advances to the next round.Win and move on, lose and go home. While that puts a little added pressure on the players, it actually isn't anything the Stars haven't already felt with in Games 5 and 6. In that sense, what happened previously in the series does become a factor, because the Stars have already been dealing with the burden of facing elimination since Game 4's 2-1 loss put them down three games to one.
"The situation hasn't changed for us, it's exactly the same as it's been the last two games," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "Games 5 and 6 were Game 7s for us, too. Our situation hasn't changed and we have to play that way, play with that desperation to do whatever it takes to win, to stay alive."
What's different this time, of course, is that the Canucks are also on the brink.
"Their situation is similar to ours now," Tippett said. "This is the first time that their backs have been against the wall. You have to expect that they're going to come out and play hard and play with that desperation. We have to have that same commitment, because there's no tomorrow for us."
The Stars would appear to have the momentum going into Game 7, especially after putting together their most complete game of the playoffs Saturday night while winning Game 6 by a 2-0 score that doesn't indicate by just how much the Stars outplayed the Canucks. But defenseman Mattias Norstrom points out that Dallas needs to ignore that success and just approach Game 7 as a separate entity.
"You talk about momentum swinging back and forth, but I think Game 7 is for both teams," Norstrom said. "It's only one game now, so you kind of forget who won the last game, and what happened earlier in the series, and now the season is down to one game, and I think that's the way to approach it. Let's put the whole rest of the series behind us and it's only one game now and that's where our focus is going to be."
Still, it's hard to overlook the gritty comeback the Stars have made in this series, and how well they've played in doing it, registering two consecutive shutouts and controlling the territorial play.
"I think we've earned it," Stars captain Brenden Morrow stated. "We've earned the right to be in Game 7, being down 3-1 and people questioning you. We came right out and we played two real good games of hockey and we deserve to be in this position, and we're confident that if we do the things we've been doing, we're going to have success." Playoff Game 7s are special events that can both create or kill dreams. With both teams facing elimination at the same time, the level of drama in the deciding game is ratcheted up yet another notch.
"It's one game, the intensity's a lot higher than Game 1, our desperation's at the highest," said veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, who will be skating in his seventh Game 7. "It's a very important game, obviously; the winner takes the series."
For the players, they have to avoid thinking about the implications of the outcome and just concentrate on what they have to do on the ice. In addition to the nail-biting aspect of it, though, it's also the most exciting time for players to challenge themselves.
"You just know someone at the end of the game is going home and it's the end of someone's year, so there's a lot of pressure on everyone involved, but it's a lot of fun, it's very exciting," noted injured winger Matthew Barnaby, who has participated in two Game 7s in his career and won both of them. "It's something you dream of as a kid. Any time you're out in the street or in the basement (playing hockey), it's always like Game 7, overtime, and finally, for some of these young kids to play in one, it's exciting. There is pressure, but it's an exciting type of pressure."
"It's nerve-wracking, obviously, but they're fun games to play in," added veteran Jon Klemm, the club's seventh defenseman who has played in five Game 7s. "It's what you dream of, growing up as a kid, is being able to play in Game 7 for the Stanley Cup. I think you've got to go out and play the game. Obviously, you've got pressure, but it's a good kind of pressure, it's sharpness, it means you're sharp, mentally. You just make sure you're ready to play, and just go out there and have fun with it. Enjoy the moment."
Klemm has experienced one of hockey's ultimate moments, when, as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, his club prevailed in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup over New Jersey.
"I played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, that's pretty memorable," Klemm said. "And being on the right end of that was even better, especially that year. That was the year Ray Bourque won the Stanley Cup, so that kind of made it a little extra special."
Any player who has skated in a Game 7 has fond memories of those experiences, especially if his team emerged victorious. "I think my most memorable one was playing against Ottawa," said Barnaby, referring to his first-round series in 1997 with Buffalo. "We were eighth seeded and they were the number one seed and no one gave us a chance. Derek Plante scoring the winning goal, I assisted on the winning goal in overtime. It was just an awesome memory for myself."
For Tippett, who played in four Game 7s during his 11-year NHL career, a devastating loss while with the Hartford Whalers remains one of his biggest memories.
"We lost in double overtime to Montreal in Game 7 of the second round in '86, Claude Lemieux (scored the game-winner)," Tippett recalled. "There's some games like that, and when I coached in Houston, we went to the final game in every series and won a championship in Game 7. Those are good memories.
"Playing in a gold medal game (in the 1992 Olympics for Canada) where you've got one game for all the marbles - we're in this sport and you like to get to those pinnacle moments. They are the ones that tweak you the most, Game 7s or one-game situations, those are the ones that make a lot of memories."
Tippett's comparison of an Olympic gold medal game to a playoff Game 7 is appropriate, and the experience of playing in that situation last season is something that players like Jere Lehtinen and Niklas Hagman (Finland) and Norstrom (Sweden) can draw on Monday night. Also, while goaltender Marty Turco has never been part of an NHL Game 7 before, he has gone through the one-game playoff pressure of the NCAA Tournament, winning the national championship twice with Michigan.
"It will be the first Game 7s for some guys in here, so it's going to be exciting no matter what," Turco said. "Those college games, the tournament games, are similar to this. I have a lot of great experiences to draw from, so hopefully we can pull it out."
Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, the fact that the game will be in Vancouver might be a positive for the Stars, not only because they have already won two games there this series, but because it seems to help focus them more.
"I think it's nice that maybe we're on the road for Game 7," Sydor said. "We play our road game and just keep it simple. Obviously, the first 5-10 minutes are very important, just try to deaden the crowd and just keep it simple." "We've played well in there, and that's something, you're not intimidated by the building," Tippett added. "If anything, their fans are loud, it's a great atmosphere up there. When the visiting team comes in, you're focused on the task at hand, there's no distractions, you go in and play. I think that's been our mindset going in there and we've played very well there."
So with everything up for grabs in this one game, the Stars feel they can balance along that edge of being confident and prepared and using the pressure to motivate, not hinder.
"Everybody knows that it's the last game, but I like our mindset right now because we've been there for a couple of games," Tippett said. "Every play in the game counts, there's nothing to save it for, you might as well throw it all out there and see what happens. The team that can play with that desperation level and has the poise and can do the things that count to make you win the hockey games is usually the team that comes out of it."
"It's all on the line," Turco said. "We've had our backs to the wall. Let's hope we play the same we have been the last two games."
The last time Dallas played in a Game 7 was in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, when the Stars defeated Colorado 3-2 at Reunion Arena to advance to their second straight Stanley Cup Finals. Current Stars Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Darryl Sydor all played in that game, while Klemm was on the losing side.
The Stars have been in three Game 7s since the franchise moved to Texas and are 2-1 in those games. They also won Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 1999 over Colorado, 4-1 in Dallas, but were upset in the deciding game of their opening round series with Edmonton in 1997 on home ice.
Of the 119 post-season series in NHL history to reach the seventh game, 29 have been decided in overtime. The last time that happened was in 2004, when Calgary beat the Canucks in the first round. Of those 29 OT games, the home team is 15-14, but road clubs are 10-4 since 1990.
The Canucks have lost their last two Game 7s. In addition to the opening round OT game against Calgary in '04, Vancouver also lost in Game 7 to Minnesota in the second round of the 2003 playoffs, a series that they also led 3-1 after four games.