4/23 By: Matt Gutierrez
The NHL is often described as having the best playoffs of all the major sports. Players seem to elevate their games to levels not seen throughout the course of the 82 game season. Goalies make saves that make you scratch your head. Guys who rarely (if ever) score come up with game winners. And don’t even get me started about the overtime periods! As fun as the 3 v 3, 5:00 OT’s in the regular season are, nothing can match the intensity of full periods of sudden death playoff hockey. Nothing, except a game 7.
The Vegas Golden Knights had a chance to close out the series vs the San Jose Sharks at home on Easter Sunday. Martin Jones, who had his issues early in the series, was about as good as any goalie has been, or could ever hope to be. Vegas peppered Jones with 59 shots. Jones stopped 58 of them. Jones’ performance is the only reason the Sharks were even in the game. San Jose was out hit, out shot, and basically out played in every phase of the game. Yet somehow they found themselves in a 1-1 tie heading into a second OT. Vegas drew a penalty for their first OT power play, only to see the Sharks skate off the ice in celebration of a short handed, 2OT goal…the first in NHL playoff history.
Three of the four “major sports” leagues in America play best of seven series in their playoffs. MLB, the NBA, and of course, the NHL. In the NFL and the NCAA (both basketball and football), we get “game seven-esque” type formats with the lose and go home scenario. It’s one of the things that makes March Madness such a great tourney. It only takes one bad night to send you packing. But a great 7 game series gives you a build up. It tells a story. It moves and bends. It takes twists and turns you may have never seen coming and drops you right in the lap of a game 7.
2001: The country was still in shock following the 9/11 disaster. Sports had become the perfect escape for many Americans to forget about the horrors that took place in New York. The World Series featured none other than New York’s own, the Yankees. The Yankees would face a team that had only been around for four seasons, the Arizona Diamondbacks. They had hardly been around long enough to establish a fan base, and they were facing the most storied franchise in all of baseball, maybe all of sports. Paired with the fact that most of America was rooting for New York for sentimental reasons, there was no way Arizona was going to win this series. After falling behind 2-0, the Yankees won three straight in NY in some the most dramatic, and emotional games ever seen. The series shifted back to Arizona where the D-Backs won game 6 and setting the stage for one of the greatest game 7’s in MLB history. With Mariano Rivera in to close, the Diamondbacks rallied to tie the game. In stepped Luis Gonzalez who blooped a game winning walk-off single into right field giving the upstart Diamondbacks the World Series.
2009: In a rematch of the ’08 cup final, the Detroit Red Wings faced off against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit was defending champs and was set to repeat as game 7 took the series back to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The first six games were all about home ice advantage. The Red Wings took the first two in Detroit, followed by two Penguins wins in Pittsburgh. The trend would hold in games five and six, and game 7 figured to be more of the same. Pittsburgh got on the board first early in the second period, but would lose their captain, Sidney Crosby to injury shortly after. With Crosby out, Detroit figured to capitalize. But Fleury stopped 23 of 24 shots on goal, and the Penguins found a way to raise the cup on the road in Detroit.
2016: The Golden State Warriors were defending champions and new owners of the best regular season record in NBA history. They had a 3-1 series lead vs LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. No way a team that good, that talented, that driven could lose that series to a team with Matthew Dellavedova as the point guard, right? Wrong. Following a suspension to GSW star forward, Draymond Green, the Cavs blew out the Warriors in games 5 (in Oakland) and 6 (in Cleveland) to force a game 7 back in Oakland. The Warriors looked like they would escape with a second championship when a chase down block by James changed their fortunes. Kyrie Irving would eventually ice the game with a three, and the Cavaliers would take home their first championship in franchise history.
2019: That brings us to tonight. Vegas will be in San Jose to face the Sharks in their first game 7 in franchise history. It’s only the second time in five playoff series that they’ll be facing elimination, the first time coming in game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final last season (which they lost). The pressure is magnified knowing that there’s no tomorrow if you lose. Winner moves on, loser goes home. When the Knights lost game one, no one batted an eye. “Plenty of time left in this series,” people said. And there was. Vegas rattled off three straight wins and took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Following their game 5 loss, we all heard (and said) the same things. “They’re coming home for game 6, nothing to worry about.” But they lost, and now time has run out. Game 7 is final. It’s March Madness. It’s one and done. It’s the walk-off. It’s 82 games of the regular season plus 6 grueling playoff games all boiling down to sixty minutes of hockey to determine your fate.
Will home ice matter? It didn’t seem to matter to Fleury in ’09. But this is a different team and a much older Fleury. Will the crowd have an effect on the Golden Knights? It didn’t effect them in game two. But the stakes are higher now and there is no tomorrow for the loser. Will Jones be the brick wall he was in game six, or will he be the sieve he was in games two through four?
The Golden Knights have done more in just two seasons of existence than most thought could happen in their first ten years. They were unable to come through on the biggest stage last season. The stage isn’t as big just quite yet, but this is brand new territory for this young franchise. Game 7 is…game 7. It’s the two most exciting words in sports. It’s every cheesy cliche’ you can think of, and it’s happening tonight in San Jose. Will Vegas rise to occasion and break the hearts of all of San Jose, or will they fold under the immense pressure of the final game these two teams will play against each other this season?
We’ll find out in a few hours.