Commentary

A team's mindset heading into Game 7

Updated: June 15, 2011, 3:30 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- On the morning of the most important game in the lives of the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Dan Bylsma gathered his team after the morning skate.

He asked veteran winger Bill Guerin whether he had ever played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals. No, Guerin answered.

Even when he was a kid playing shinny? Or in minor hockey? Or on the pond growing up?

Well, sure, Guerin said.

"And I said, 'How'd you do when you were imagining it?'" Bylsma recalled in an interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeDan Bylsma
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesPenguins coach Dan Bylsma won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 in 2009 and played in one with Anaheim in 2003.

Guerin said he'd scored a goal in every one of those imagined Game 7 contests.

Then Bylsma asked defenseman Mark Eaton the same question: How did he play when he imagined playing in Game 7 of the finals?

"He hemmed and hawed and finally said, 'I played great,'" Bylsma said.

He then asked the entire room who had played poorly when they imagined being on the cusp of a Stanley Cup championship growing up?

No one had, of course.

Then, Bylsma told his players that June morning in 2009 that when they skated out on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, each and every one of them at some point would have the game on his stick. It might have been a blocked shot or an intercepted pass or a great back check, but everyone was going to have a chance to make good on those childhood memories, to make that great play that would result in the raising of the Cup.

And after netminder Marc-Andre Fleury flung himself in front of Nicklas Lidstrom's final effort in the waning seconds, it turned out Bylsma was right. The Penguins got two goals from Maxime Talbot and won the team's first Stanley Cup since 1992.

But that's the thing with Game 7s: You never know, do you?

The Red Wings had won their first three home games in that classic 2009 series and must have believed -- as presumably the Vancouver Canucks believe now, having won their first three home games in the current Stanley Cup finals -- they would carry the day and hoist their second straight Stanley Cup on home ice.

"It's tough to get a feel for them," Bylsma said of Game 7s.

As a coach, he said, you worry more about the uncontrollable -- the bad bounce off the end boards, the deflected goal and things like that.

"You feel like that's more of a factor in Game 7," he said.

But you also have to know how you want to play in a deciding game.

Bylsma figures the Bruins, having lost three one-goal games in Vancouver thus far, must believe they have played well enough to have perhaps taken at least one of those games.

"I think they have a legitimate feeling. 'We've been in every game here [in Vancouver]. We know how to play in this building,'" Bylsma said. "I've got a feeling Boston knows how it's going to play."

Had the roles been reversed and the Canucks had to play Game 7 on the road after being blasted in all three games in Boston, that message might be harder to sell, Bylsma said. As it is, the Canucks have played well at home, allowing just two goals and shutting out Boston twice, so they will be able to take that with them into Wednesday's winner-take-all showdown.

Bylsma has seen both sides of the Game 7 Stanley Cup finals ledger. He won as a coach, but he also played for the Ducks in the last all-homer Stanley Cup finals back in 2003, when the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim traded home wins for seven straight games.

Bylsma recalled winning Game 6 in Anaheim when Paul Kariya made his courageous comeback after being decked by Scott Stevens and believing the Ducks -- oddly enough coached by his Detroit counterpart in the 2008 and 2009 finals, Mike Babcock -- had a great chance to beat the Devils in New Jersey.

It didn't happen.

But Bylsma said that when you win 15 postseason games, as the Bruins and Canucks have, there's a lot of currency built up, a lot of strong feelings about a team's ability to get the job done.

"By the finals, you've built up a lot of good thoughts, a lot of good mojo," he said.

As for coaching strategies, Bylsma said he thinks it's better to under-coach than over-coach in a Game 7. He said it's important not to make a snap judgment on something like replacing a goalie (something that is germane given the fact that Roberto Luongo has been yanked twice in this series) or changing power-play personnel or swapping linemates if things don't go well early in a game.

Even things like yelling at a referee need to be within the norm, Bylsma said.

There no doubt will be some anxiousness among Canucks fans about how long a leash the up-and-down Luongo will have in Game 7. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault pulled Luongo before the midway point of the first period of Game 6 after he allowed three goals on eight shots.

But, without referring specifically to Luongo, Bylsma said, when you've played well more than 100 games between the regular season and playoffs, you go with your guy and stick with him perhaps even longer than you might otherwise.

"Why would you be in a hurry to make a change and go with someone who is not your guy," Bylsma wondered.

Players take their cues from a coach; if they sense a nervousness or panic, it will affect their belief in the coach's game plan and their play might suffer.

"If you act differently, I don't think that's a good thing," Bylsma said.

That's not to say you don't make adjustments. But Bylsma said he would be tempted to use a player on the power play that has at least had some experience there at some point in the season. Or linemates who had at least some familiarity with each other, as opposed to simply hoping to catch lightning in a bottle when things aren't going well in Game 7.

"You don't come up with something new when it means the most," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.