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The Game to End All Games

June 08, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic parting with decades of tradition and handing off the Stanley Cup to teammate Ray Bourque, who had waited 22 years to win a championship and skate a well-earned victory lap....

New York Ranger fans chanting "1994" and putting an end to the self-mocking chants of "1940" after winning the Cup for the first time in 54 years. Spotted among the surging throng, one fan's hand-lettered sign reads: "Now I can die in peace" ...

Philadelphia Flyer goaltender Ron Hextall slumping to the ice in agony after letting in a late goal against the Edmonton Oilers in 1987. Hextall would become the fourth player from a losing team to earn playoff most-valuable-player honors, but it was a mere consolation prize....

Goalie Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens turning back the Chicago Blackhawks one final time in 1971, taking MVP honors in the playoffs after making only six regular-season starts....

The Mighty Ducks and New Jersey Devils on Monday will no doubt create new vignettes to savor from that rarest of Stanley Cup finals endgames: A winner-take-all Game 7.

The Ducks will be attempting to become the first team of the post-1990 expansion era to win a championship. The Devils will be trying to erase memories of that Game 7 loss two years ago to Bourque and the Avalanche.

"We can't put too much pressure on ourselves or get too tight and unsure of ourselves," Duck defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh said after his team forced Game 7 with a 5-2 victory over the Devils in Game 6 on Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond. "And it's the same for them. We have to pretend that we're playing in our own building again."

When the Ducks and Devils play at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., it will mark only the fifth time since the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967 that there will be a Game 7 in the finals. Players' nerves will fray. Coaches will fret. Television ratings will spike. Fans will chew their fingernails.

It also will be only the 11th time since the Toronto Maple Leafs famously rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit in 1942 and defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 3-1, in Game 7 before more than 16,000 fans at Toronto. At the time, it was the largest crowd to witness a game in Canada.

"Teams have to be so incredibly matched," said Bill Clement, an ESPN analyst and a Stanley Cup champion with the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-1970s. "I bet you there have been more sweeps in the finals than Game 7s. There are just so many disparities in talent. Detroit ran into [New Jersey's] trap in 1995 and didn't know what to do. Philadelphia was in over their heads against Detroit in 1997. Washington was in over their heads against the Red Wings in 1998.

"When you're down a game, you recognize how precarious things are. The gas tank is just about empty, you're running on fumes, but you still think you can put one skate in front of the other for two more games.

"When you're up three games to two, you can start to taste it. Boy, you've got the afterburners working all night."

Clement is right: There have been 20 four-game sweeps and only 12 Game 7s in the finals since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939.

In many ways, the NHL shares a good deal with its wintertime cousin, the NBA. There hasn't been a Game 7 in the NBA Finals since the Houston Rockets defeated the New York Knicks in 1994, the seventh to go the distance since 1967.

By contrast, the baseball season has ended with Game 7s the past two Octobers, with a bases-clearing double by Garret Anderson propelling the Angels by the San Francisco Giants last year and Luis Gonzalez's blooper scoring the winning run for the Arizona Diamondbacks against the New York Yankees in 2001.

In fact, the World Series has been decided by a Game 7 a whopping 14 times since 1967. And you could make it 15 times if you include the St. Louis Cardinals' Game 7 triumph over the Boston Red Sox as the six new NHL teams were opening training camp in the fall of 1967.

Memories of Stanley Cup finals Game 7s haven't faded over time. Some have grown stronger, more vivid with their retelling over the years.

In 1964, for instance, Maple Leaf defenseman Bob Baun played Game 7 on a broken ankle and never missed a shift after being injured when he was struck by a slap shot from Detroit's Gordie Howe in Game 6. Baun also had scored the game-winner 2:43 into overtime for the Leafs in Game 6.

The 1955 finals will be forever remembered for the suspension of the Canadiens' Maurice "Rocket" Richard for punching a linesman and the riot in downtown Montreal that followed. The Red Wings would defeat the short-handed Habs, with the home team winning all seven games.

In 1954, the Red Wings' Tony Leswick scored 4:29 into the second overtime, ending only the second Game 7 in history to be decided in sudden death. Four years earlier, Pete Babando made the Red Wings winners with an overtime goal in Game 7 against the Rangers.

In 1950, a scheduling snafu forced the Rangers from Madison Square Garden because the circus was in town. The team had to play "home" games at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in Games 2 and 3.

Among the victorious Red Wings were Max McNab, father of Duck assistant general manager David McNab, and Larry and Johnny Wilson, father and uncle of the first Duck coach, Ron Wilson.

So how does it end, how is Game 7 decided Monday?

Several Ducks were asked after their victory Saturday in Game 6 to flash back to their childhood, to relate how the Game 7s of their youth unfolded in their driveways and on neighborhood rinks.

"Well, winning, obviously," team captain Paul Kariya said with a chuckle.

Said winger Mike Leclerc: "I was wearing a Boston Bruin uniform and I was Cam Neely and we won. I'm wearing a Ducks uniform now and I want to win."

Winger Dan Bylsma added with a broad smile: "I think we all know how our dreams end."

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