From boyhood dreams to reality: It's Game 7
RALEIGH, N.C. -- When he was a boy, Chris Pronger and his buddies played this game on St. Charles Street in Dryden, Ontario.
He always won.
"It's funny the way that happens," Pronger said Sunday, about 26 hours before the puck would drop on the seventh and deciding contest in this compelling Stanley Cup finals.
Two years ago, Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore did not dress for Game 7, but he recalls the scene inside the Flames' dressing room after Calgary lost the final game of the Stanley Cup finals to Tampa Bay in Tampa.
"After the game, going into the dressing room, talk about no fun. That was painful. It's no fun seeing your friends and grown men cry, it's not a pleasurable experience," Commodore recalled.
From boyhood dreams that become reality to reality that becomes disappointment, this is the grand telescope of the game narrowed to its finest point. A single pinprick of light on a dark canvas -- Game 7.
Sixty minutes (or more, of course, pending overtime) to make enough plays collectively to earn a place in history. All of the hundreds of names inscribed on the side of the silver chalice are reminders for all time of players who did just that.
There are hundreds of names not on the Cup who could not. Hundreds of players who were somehow paralyzed by the enormity of the moment and became part of the great unremembered.
Monday night, the surging Edmonton Oilers and the reeling hometown Carolina Hurricanes will engage in one more battle of wills to determine on which side of that grand emotional ledger they will stand.
"I hope all of our paralyzation is out of us after last night. We were pretty paralyzed," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said.
The NHL simply could not have asked for a better Stanley Cup finals or two better teams to battle for the first championship in the post-lockout NHL.
Fans in both cities have established themselves as among the classiest in all of pro sports. Each building now loudly sings the national anthem of the opposing team in full throat. That, and Edmonton anthem singer Paul Lorieau turning the last half of "O Canada" over to the Oilers fans, will remain one of the most endearing images of the finals.
And so it is somehow just and right that it will come down to one game to crown a champion.
Each team will gird itself with different armor in preparing for this one final test.
The Oilers, of course, have won two straight elimination games against the Hurricanes and have established a clear mental advantage heading into Game 7.
"We feel good. We feel confident, obviously, two straight wins," Edmonton forward Jarret Stoll said. "After Game 6, it was just quiet in our room. We were very focused on getting the job done. It's definitely not done yet."
A team that has already wildly exceeded expectations exudes tremendous confidence, having dominated the skilled Hurricanes physically. While the Oilers lack the experience the Canes possess playing in Game 7s, they are nonetheless battle-tested.
The Oilers scrambled to make the playoffs. They dropped their first postseason game against Detroit and the first two against San Jose in the second round, and, of course, just a few short days ago, after losing their starting goalie, faced a 3-1 series deficit against Carolina.
In short, pressure, schmessure.
"We've played a lot of big games this year," explained center Shawn Horcoff. "We just feel confident. We're actually pretty calm about the game [Monday]."
"Generally, every game that we play is played with a focus of a seventh game of a Stanley Cup," added Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish. "We don't make too many mistakes out of inexperience and that's going to have to be true [Monday]."
For the Hurricanes, it's about taking advantage of something that might have been secured on some cold night in February when they won a seemingly meaningless game -- home-ice advantage. Historically, that advantage has been significant as 11 of 13 home teams have emerged victorious in final series Game 7s.
"We've been in this position before. We've blocked those types of things out. We have guys in here that have the experience that have been there before," said veteran Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley, who is 6-1 in Game 7s. "I think we're all embarrassed at the way we played [in Game 6]. So if that doesn't add any fuel to the fire for ourselves, then we're going to be in a lot of trouble. But we're a resilient team. We've bounced back time and time again throughout the regular season and in the playoff."
For Carolina, it's also about remembering how good a hockey team they've been for much of this season. Laviolette acknowledged that few gave the Canes a chance at the beginning of the season and that few give them a chance now.
"It's one game. It's a one-game shot. We have won an awful lot of hockey games this year, more than anybody else in the National Hockey League," Laviolette said.
For both teams, it will be about clearing the mental plate to allow the tactical game to gain traction, whether it's the Oilers' physical play and ferocious forecheck or the Hurricanes' quick-strike transition game and potent power play.
"Yeah, it's a big game; yeah, it's a big stage. Obviously. But you've got to find some way to not forget about it, but put it in the back of your mind and play," Commodore said. "I know the stage is big, but we're still playing hockey and you want to play well. And I think in order to play well, you can't get the puck and say, 'Oh my god, I've got to make a good play,' or 'Don't screw this up' or be thinking to yourself, 'Oh gee, I don't want the puck.'
"You've got to be willing to go out there and play and make plays and not be scared to make a mistake. If you're gripping the stick, turning it into sawdust, things aren't going to go well," he said.
On Monday night, the eyes of the hockey world will be on Raleigh, all watching to see which of these two fine hockey teams flinches and which stands tall.
It really doesn't get any better than that.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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