Detroit Red Wings' Brendan Smith controls the puck as Anaheim Ducks'… (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images )
For hockey players, Game 7s have a particular resonance — sort of like Christmas morning wrapped up with a trip to the dentist. Something to anticipate, something to dread, in other words.
Two years ago, the Boston Bruins needed to win a seventh game, on home ice, to escape the first round against Montreal — and ended up winning the Stanley Cup. The Bruins won three Game 7s that year, being able to win when it mattered most.
That's what Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau wants from his team in Sunday's one-game, winner-take-all showdown with the playoff-tested Detroit Red Wings. While the Ducks will be playing only the fifth Game 7 in franchise history, Detroit has played 23 of them, including a 4-3 win over Anaheim in 2009.
The Red Wings got themselves back into this series thanks to strong scoring efforts from their two dynamic veterans, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who combined for three goals Friday in Detroit's 4-3 overtime win in Game 6. Zetterberg had two, including the game winner.
"They rise to the occasion," Boudreau said. "We've got to get people to rise to the occasion as well and [Sunday is] a perfect time for our own guys to make their mark on playoff history actually. Let's have some young guy — or some older guy — come up and play the best game of their life. Then all of a sudden, they'll have that reputation for an awful long time, like those two do."
The beauty and attraction of a Game 7 is that the players revert to being kids again. "We talked about that on the plane going home" from Detroit on Friday night, left wing Corey Perry said at Saturday's optional skate. "Obviously, we were disappointed after we lost, but we were talking about how, when you're a kid, you go out on the streets and you're playing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"That's the reality and that's the fun part of hockey. You dream about Game 7s and to be that guy to step up, it could be anybody in this dressing room, but to be that one guy would be pretty special."
Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy has played in one Game 7, in 2011 when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing to Tampa Bay, 1-0. He said that Game 7s are the "pinnacle of ice hockey.
"These are the games you dream about," Lovejoy said. "It is stressful. This is a game where you want to be perfect. You want to come out and be great right away. But you're also thinking in the back of your mind that you don't want be the guy to make the mistake. This is where you earn your money playing hockey."
Lovejoy paused and sounded just like a kid, adding: "This is pretty cool."
If the Ducks win, they'll advance to the second round and play the Kings, in what would be the first playoff series between the SoCal neighbors.
If they lose, then all the promise of a 30-12-6 regular season — the third-best record in the NHL this lockout-shortened season — quickly fades. Perry, for one, would love nothing better to break out of his mini-slump in the series, where he's been limited to two assists.
"I've just got to do something different," he said. "But I'm not putting any more pressure on myself. I've had my chances. I'm shooting the puck. I'm going to the net. One puck's got to go in off somebody, or off me. Something's got to give."
For his part, Boudreau said that given the choice, he'd rather be playing the game than coaching.
"It's a lot easier to play," said Boudreau. "Game 7 playing is a tremendous amount of fun. Game 7 coaching is not so much. When you wake up and it's Game 7 as a player, you can't wait to get to the rink and put the stuff on and go on the ice and just dream about scoring the winning goal.
"Game 7 coaching is more anxiety. You don't want to make the wrong decisions. It's not about the positive feelings."
Also to consider: If the Ducks lose, this could be Teemu Selanne's final NHL game. The 42-year-old Finn generally waits until the summer to make any decisions about his future, but there are no guarantees he will continue beyond this season.
So there is a lot to play for — and this year, home-ice advantage has mattered more than usual in one of the tightest opening rounds in NHL playoff history. Before Saturday, 15 of 41 playoff games had been decided in overtime, four of them in the Ducks-Red Wings series.
Teams like to say that home-ice advantage matters most in a seventh game, when energy provided by the crowd could help mitigate the weariness of cross-country travel, as this series has required.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf acknowledged the truth in something Boudreau said following the Game 6 loss — that the Ducks played not to lose rather than to win. But he also suggested that was a natural tendency, given how Detroit had everything on the line. For Game 7, both teams are in that position.
"It's a hard mentality to get into because nobody can really get there until your back's against the wall," Getzlaf said. "Luckily for us, everyone's against the wall now. It's do-or-die now and we've got to be ready to go."
Do-or-die doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but Getzlaf insisted otherwise.
"If you can't enjoy it, then you're in the wrong sport," said Getzlaf. "These are situations many of us have been in and some are going to be in for the first time. They're a lot of fun. It's an enjoyable time. We're excited about tomorrow."