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Saturday, June 7

Updated: June 9, 8:43 AM ET

Grind turns grand when Game 7 puck drops

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This was further evidence of why the NHL playoffs are the most testing grind in professional sports.

It takes resiliency, short memories after failures and even embarrassments, and the ability to survive the physical and mental tests. In the NHL playoffs, there can be surprises, but no flukes. And that includes a goaltender's Herculean performance over a two-month span to lift a mediocre team to the brink of a championship.

So if the Mighty Ducks win Game 7 on Monday night, even if Jean-Sebastien Giguere were to make 71 saves in a 1-0 regulation victory, it would not be an aberration worthy of an asterisk.

(And regardless of what happens Monday night, if Giguere doesn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, the ballot counter was from Florida. And we don't mean Mike Keenan.)

An Anaheim victory would be worthy of a standing ovation, whether from the celebrities who found their way to the Arrowhead Pond during the finals (presumably with a map or a driver, or both), or from NHL fans in Saskatoon, Stockholm and Cincinnati.

"People who haven't lived this have no idea of the emotions at all," Anaheim coach Mike Babcock said Saturday night, after the Mighty Ducks forced Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals with a 5-2 victory over the Devils. "(The Devils are) a veteran team who's been through it time and time again. This is the first time I've seen them fluctuate like this.

"Now you take it to Game 7. Right now, we've got a one-game shot to win the Cup."

It's funny, but the messages are mixed. On the one hand, the last time home-ice held up through the first six games of a Cup final, the road team -- the Canadiens -- won at Chicago in Game 7. That happened in 1971. But the home team is 9-2 in Game 7s. And the last time there was a Game 7, the Devils lost in Denver to the Avalanche, also after leading the finals 3-2.

The experience can be enabling. Or the pressure of not letting one get away could make them play tight. The Devils know that if they lose this one, despite having won the Cup twice (in 1995 and 2000), they will be considered underachievers. They know the question will be: But what about those other two years?

But here's the bottom line: What happened in the past, whether it was in the short rink at the Stadium with the organ seemingly ready to blow the roof off the building; or whether it happened in the Pepsi Center in Denver two years ago, becomes irrelevant Monday night.

The encouraging thing for the Devils, said goalie Martin Brodeur, involves recent precedents. He cited "the way that we play in our building." He also said the veteran-laden Devils "know that we have guys who can score big goals at a big time."

But who'd have thought it would come to this?

The series has been far from great hockey, but the fluctuations of fortune -- and even style -- have made it entertaining in a quirky fashion. Game 1 (a 3-0 New Jersey victory) was dreadful and seemed to be portentous of a terrible series. It hasn't been, primarily thanks to the three games in Anaheim.

Masterpieces? Of course not. But two Anaheim overtime victories, a Brodeur faux pas that seemed positively Roy-esque, and then Paul Kariya's recovery from the hit from Scott Stevens and his second-period goal in Game 6 Saturday night all were great theater. (The Stevens hit wasn't "dirty," but it was a cheap shot nonetheless. It also could backfire.)

The bizarre openings of Games 5 and 6, when goals were bouncing in and piling up prolifically, at least got our attention ... and had us scratching our heads for explanations.

"The guys were reading the papers and found out that the public didn't like what was going on," Babcock joked. "So they thought ..."

He caught himself.

"No, I don't have any idea why that's happened."

Steve Rucchin, who had Anaheim's first two goals in Game 6, looked ahead. "You can't dream of anything more, a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 7. It doesn't get much better than that."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.
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