- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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It hasn't happened in more than six years: a playoff jackpot for hockey fans that features three -- count 'em, three -- Game 7s on the same night.
The last time the stars aligned for such a night of playoff hockey -- April 29, 1997 -- two of the three games went into overtime. The Sabres edged the Senators, 3-2, on Derek Plante's OT series winner. The Oilers stunned the Stars, 4-3, at old Reunion Arena when Todd Marchant beat Andy Moog with an overtime breakaway. In the only game that was decided in regulation time, the Ducks blanked the Coyotes, 3-0, behind the stellar goaltending of Guy Hebert.
Nearly six years later, we get Leafs-Flyers, Wild-Avs and Blues-Canucks. Heck, all three of those games could go to extra time, based on what we've seen in the previous six games.
Here are some things to look for. Remember, since the league introduced the seven-game format in 1939, the home team holds a substantial 67-38 advantage in Game 7s.
Leafs at Flyers, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Despite the fact the Flyers have enjoyed the better of the play for most of the series (Philly leads in total shots, 246-170), you just had a feeling it would come down to a seventh game. As we learned last spring, these Leafs can be very hard to kill.
Right now, health and conditioning might decide the outcome. The clubs have played 472:05 of hockey -- less than eight minutes shy of eight games. Compounding that fact: Tonight is their second game in as many nights and their third in four days.
The injury report favors the Leafs. They enjoyed the surprise return of second-line center Nikolai Antropov, who suffered a broken foot in Game 1 (on April 9), for Monday's Game 6, during which he played 30 effective minutes. Antropov's presence helped linemate Owen Nolan, who played his best game of the series.
The Flyers again will be without top defenseman Eric Desjardins, who broke his right foot in Game 5. His injury forced coach Ken Hitchcock to play five defensemen for most of the double overtime tilt. The fact that sixth defenseman Jim Vandermeer, subbing for Desjardins, was knocked woozy didn't help matters. Vandermeer received just 12:35 of ice time on the night.
Jeremy Roenick, who scored the lone Flyers' goal and registered a team-high seven shots in Game 6, is playing valiantly despite a possible concussion and other assorted bumps and bruises. He could use some help from big forwards John LeClair and Michal Handzus, who've been nearly invisible during the last two games.
Goalies Ed Belfour (who turned 38 on Monday) and Roman Cechmanek were brilliant in Game 6. Both men will have to be just as sharp on Tuesday night. It would be wise for Cechmanek to try to stay within himself in this big spot. He's excellent when he stays within his posts. However, when we scrambles outside that area, he finds himself scrambling for safety.
The Pick: Take the Leafs, who are getting healthy at the right time. They shouldn't be here, but the Flyers didn't kill them when they had the chance. Now, they'll pay for that.
Wild at Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Let's face it, nobody except the Wild and their fans think they can win this game. Of course, nobody except the Wild and their fans figured there'd be a Game 7, either.
The Avs, who just can't do things the easy way, have gone the distance in their last five playoff series, dating back to the 2001 Cup final. Last season, during their conference quarterfinal against the Kings, the Avs followed the same script, blowing a 3-1 series lead. In that case, they managed to win Game 7 at the Pepsi Center.
Colorado could be without top defenseman Adam Foote, who missed Game 6 with a foot injury (at least, that's what they're saying it is). Avs coach Tony Granato rotated five defensemen for most of the night. Chris McAllister, inserted for Foote, played just 2:34 during the evening. With no day off between games, this could cause a fatigue problem on the Avs' blueline.
The first goal should be important again in Game 7. During the first six games, the team that scored first has gone on to win the game.
The Avs carry the heavy burden of expectations into Game 7. They're supposed to win this series. They've been in these situations before, but not against an underdog like the third-year Wild, a hard working and well-coached bunch. No doubt, they could use a stronger performance from legendary netminder Patrick Roy, who has been pretty average in the last two games. The Wild haven't been intimidated by Roy's presence.
At the other end of the rink, Manny Fernandez likely will try for his third straight win. With coach Jacques Lemaire, you can't be sure of who will be in goal until game time. Interestingly, Fernandez has started three straight games just once during the season (in late November). In his final start of that run, Fernandez suffered a 5-0 loss in Dallas.
Finally, if you see Milan Hejduk, please return him to the Colorado Avalanche. A 50-goal scorer during the regular season, Hejduk doesn't have a point in the last four games. His return to form would be a big help for the Avalanche.
The Pick: Would I be happy if the Wild found a way to win? Yes. Would I be surprised if they did win? Not really. Do I think they will win? No. Take the favorite on home ice.
Blues at Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GM Place will be rocking for their Canucks, who have come back from a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7.
The Canucks, who scored just four goals during the first four games of the series, rediscovered their offense in the last two, scoring nine times. Vancouver's top line of center Brendan Morrison, left winger Markus Naslund and right winger Todd Bertuzzi has been a big part of the recent success. The trio has combined for eight points (four goals) in the two victories.
In Games 5 and 6, however, a flu bug worked its way through the Blues dressing room. The club hopes to be in better shape for Game 7.
Blues' veteran Al MacInnis, sidelined by a shoulder injury he suffered early in Game 2, hasn't been ruled out for Tuesday's tilt. MacInnis, who has played in 10 Game 7s during his stellar career, skated in Vancouver on Monday. He likely will be a game-time decision. MacInnis' mere presence might provide a spark for the Blues, who seemed to have things well in hand after winning Game 4.
St. Louis will have to play more disciplined. During the second period of the last two games, they've been outscored, 7-1, thanks to several unnecessary penalties, which have led to three power-play goals.
The Canucks defense -- buoyed by the Game 2 return of Mattias Ohlund from the injured list -- has been much more aggressive in recent games. They've been looking to join the play whenever possible, and have been quick to pinch down from the point. The result? They've contributed 11 points in the last two games. The Blues will have to do a better job keeping track of guys like Ohlund, Ed Jovanovski, Brent Sopel and Sami Salo.
On the flip side, Blues center Doug Weight has been the best player in the series. He leads both clubs with five goals, seven assists and 12 points. If the Canucks can't do a better job on Weight, the Blues will win.
In goal, Chris Osgood was near perfect in the first four games, but hasn't been quite as good in the last two. He looks to be playing with a nagging leg injury. Or, it could be the same ankle injury (suffered on Jan. 21) that kept him on the shelf for six weeks. Either way, his performance could determine his future in St. Louis. Osgood, who is 1-2 in three career Game 7s, can be a restricted free agent this summer.
Meanwhile, Dan Cloutier has been pretty steady throughout the series. He held down the cage in the dying minutes of Game 6 when the Blues were making a late charge. Cloutier could erase the bad memories of last year's playoff meltdown with a strong performance on Tuesday. He has never played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Finally, keep an eye on the faceoff circle. The Canucks were great on the draw in Game 6, winning 59 percent of the faceoffs. In a key spot, look for coach Marc Crawford to send either Morrison or Artem Chubarov into the circle.
The Pick: Working under the assumption the Blues will be healthy for the first time in several days, I'll take the resilient Blues to find their way into the second round.