If you're trying to get a friend or loved one into hockey, the conventional wisdom goes, there's no better way than taking them to see a live game. It's the only way to fully grok the sport's combination of speed and force, the crowds are always a trip, and even the newbiest of first-timers can usually follow the puck when they're in the same building. But if you're not someone who can just up and attend a game every time you feel like proselytizing about the NHL to a coworker or a buddy, I offer you a more value-oriented solution: Game 7 playoff hockey.
Two of the finest series of this NHL postseason will conclude in do-or-die fashion over the next two evenings, with the L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks meeting tonight at Staples Center at 9 ET and the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings returning to the Windy City on Wednesday for their decisive 8 p.m. ET tilt.
As the winners-in-five Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins wait impatiently for the Eastern Conference finals to begin (I envision all the players from both teams spending a week idling in full pads and skates, nervously shifting their weight from side to side like they're lining up to listen to the national anthem), both Western Conference matchups have refused to go gently. The Blackhawks survived three straight losses at the hands of Detroit and now hope to rattle off three straight wins, while the Sharks came back from 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to force a seventh game.
"We really don't have anything to lose," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said Sunday night, after the Sharks' 2-1 win over L.A. "We're going to play a Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champions in their building. We look forward to that challenge."
A Game 7 feels like hockey on acid, or so I would imagine. Everything is heightened: The hits sound bone-crushing; the video montages deserve Oscars; the breakaways go on for miles; the glove saves are more demonstrative even than usual. Every whistle is, for half of the people tuning in, the worst call of all time. And the goals? Oh, the goals. Score one and you're forever Clutch; fan on a gimme and you just might be run out of town. Is that fair? Of course not. It's Game 7.
Before anyone can reach a Game 7, of course, they have to get through a Game 6. It was a gorgeous day outside HP Pavilion on Sunday, with the kind of warm, breezy weather that in most cities signifies it's time for playoff hockey. (In San Jose, it can also signify that you're in San Jose.) The Sharks had forced the game when they evened the series at 2-2, but in Game 5, the Kings pulled ahead with a 3-0 victory that gave them the opportunity to advance with one more win.
As someone who was in elementary school when the Sharks came into existence — one kid in my class promptly acquired a San Jose Starter jacket; a true feat of marketing, given that we lived in New Jersey — I always get a kick out of going to Sharks games and seeing an entire arena of folks clad in expansion-era teal.
But I was in elementary school a long time ago, and the Sharks are a new team no more. As I walked around the building, I passed Mike Ricci, the former Sharks center. As he walked by, a group of fans in front of me turned to each other all nudge-y and wide-eyed.
"Yo, was that … ?" one of them said.
"Yeah," said another. "He works for the team now. He sits up here with Doug Wilson."
(As this conversation was going on, Harrison Ford was suddenly ushered by. Later I spotted him wearing a Kings hat in a suite with Matthew Perry.)
Wilson, the Sharks general manager, was the franchise's first captain. Now he helms one of the most consistently successful teams in the league. Ricci is on his staff as a development coach. I think he had cut his trademark hair, though he may have just had it tucked into his shirt in case the Queen was planning to stop by.1 Everyone grows up eventually.
When it comes to the Sharks, though, aging is always part of the conversation. The flip side of the team's stability is that we've all been able to watch certain guys get older right in front of us. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both 33 — not exactly elderly, but not fresh young thangs, either. Defenseman Dan Boyle, who chatted with reporters for quite some time after Game 6 with blood dripping from his playoff beard, is 36. When the Sharks lose, people start worrying about advancing age and closing windows. But when they win, as they did Sunday, the "advancing" part is all that stands out.
If NHL playoff series were best-of-nine, or even best-of-19, the Sharks-Kings matchup could probably go on for months. Each team has held serve at home, and nearly all of the games have remained close throughout. It was Thornton who scored the first goal on Sunday during a first-period five-on-three power play when Joe Pavelski's pristine pass across the crease found him wide open.
T.J. Galiardi added a wrist shot a few minutes into the second period for his first goal of the playoffs and a 2-0 lead. And while Kings captain Dustin Brown, who was a thorn in the Sharks' side all night, made things interesting with a goal that cut the Sharks' lead in half, San Jose goalie Antti Niemi would not allow anything else by. After the game, Wilson strode proudly through the locker room, pausing to congratulate Galiardi on his game.
"Jumbo has been telling me the whole time, 'Be patient, you're going to score when we need it the most,'" Galiardi said of Joe Thornton. "So he was a little bit of a fortune-teller tonight."
There are only two possible outcomes in a Game 6: Either one team wins the series, or the other team forces a Game 7. This sets up an interesting dynamic in which, oftentimes, the team on the brink of elimination is under less pressure than the team that only needs to win one of the next two games.
Several Sharks admitted that they had been nervous going into Thursday's Game 5 in L.A., but everyone agreed that the atmosphere around the locker room on Sunday was noticeably relaxed. McLellan called the team's pregame routine of two-touch2 in the hallway "the loudest soccer game of the season." A reporter asked Adam Burish, who returned to play after suffering a bad hand injury in Round 1, how exactly the team was able to implement such chillaxitude. (I'm paraphrasing.) Was it towel-snapping? Kumbaya? What's the trick?
"It's not drinkin' beers," Burish joked. "That'd probably really loosen us up! It's just talking to each other, cracking a joke here or there … just the chatter. Silence sometimes can kill you. Silence in this locker room can sometimes make you nervous."
The Kings have not played in a Game 7 since 2002, a factoid that was presented after the game to L.A. coach Darryl Sutter, who bristled at the statistic. "Who cares?" he interrupted. "Who cares? So should we have a major announcement tomorrow that we haven't played a Game 7?"3
As the postgame press conference settled into an uncomfortable silence, Sutter noticed that a few reporters had snuck in late. (I'm not trying to call anyone out here; I was one of them.) He said hi to Ray Ratto, a longtime Bay Area columnist who was around back when Sutter coached San Jose, and amiably asked how he was doing.
"Can't complain a whole lot," Ratto replied.
"No sense bitchin', right?" Sutter agreed. "Nobody's gonna listen to you."
ESPN's Pierre LeBrun asked Sutter how the rest of the press conference had gone. "Was it good?" he said.
"Yeah," Sutter said, "it was awesome. I found out during the press conference that we haven't played a Game 7 since 2002. I can't wait to get back there. It's big for me. Jeez."
I flew to Detroit early the next morning for a second Game 6, this one between the Red Wings and the Blackhawks. After losing the first game of the series to Chicago, the Red Wings won three straight to give them a 3-1 series lead over the NHL's top regular-season team. But the Blackhawks took Game 5 at home on Saturday, 4-1, sending the series back to Motown.
Memorial Day in Detroit was a rainy one, but that didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the Wings fans in and around Joe Louis Arena. (Nor did it quell the vibe — and loud vibrations — of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which was taking place all weekend downtown. When I finally found out about the concert, so much fell into place: the heated dubstep discussion at the hotel bar, the girls on the elevator in bikini tops and fur boots, the discarded hula hoops clogging the street drainage vents, etc.)
The Joe was built in 1979, and it's impossible to talk about it without using the affectionate words "old barn." But really, it reminded me less of a barn and more of some shabby-moneyed WASP social club, from the thinning carpeting in the hallways to the Art Deco sconces outside each of the suites to the press box, which is outfitted with red leather stools that make you feel like you're saddling up to the bar and ordering a G&T. (Sorry, local brew Ghettoblaster.) If you've ever been to the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey, it was pretty much exactly like that.
The Blackhawks scored first, with Marian Hossa notching a power-play goal, but Detroit evened the score with less than two minutes to play in the first period on a goal from Patrick Eaves.4 Midway through the second period, Joakim Andersson scored a knucklepucky goal on Corey Crawford that gave the Wings a 2-1 lead. (Detroit coach Mike Babcock later called the goal a "gift"; you could almost hear the Windy City wails about Crawford from approximately 300 miles away.) During the second intermission, it felt like the team from Hockeytown might be advancing to the Western Conference finals once more.
But not even a minute into the third period, Chicago's Michal Handzus found himself with the puck on his stick and all the time in the world. He luxuriated in it, taking his time to pick his spot. And suddenly, it was a tie game.
"I know I got more time than I was used to for this whole series," Handzus later said.
Five minutes later, Bryan Bickell gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead. Then things went from bad to worse for Wings fans: Michael Frolik was slashed during a breakaway by Carlo Colaiacovo and awarded a penalty shot, which he backhanded past Jimmy Howard to put Chicago up 4-2. The Joe, which just earlier had been in celebratory mode, erupted in a strange sound that was part joy (from the Hawks fans scattered around the arena) and part disbelief (from everyone else).
There was still 10:17 remaining, plenty of time — but as the minutes ticked away, the stands began to empty, everyone ostensibly going home to begin preparations for Game 7. When a Damien Brunner goal narrowed Detroit's deficit to 4-3 with 52 seconds to play, I started to wonder whether this could be a Boston-Toronto redux. But with 16 seconds left, Jonathan Toews won a key faceoff in his defensive zone and Chicago held on for the win.
"You definitely get emotional when you get in those situations where you're down a goal and it's do-or-die, your season might be over," Toews told NBC. "And we just know we have a special group. We don't want to pass that up. We have a great opportunity this year."
In the California series, the team that failed to clinch Game 6 — the Kings — will get a chance to play at home in the decisive final game.5 But the Red Wings' loss was compounded by the fact that they'll face Game 7 in the hostile environs of the United Center. Between that and the last two losses, it's hard for Wings fans not to start going to dark places.
But while it can often feel as if the team that forces a seventh game is the one that heads into it with that all-important momentum, that's not really the case. Teams have forced seventh games 48 times in NHL history after trailing 3-1 — and then lost those seventh games exactly half the time.
"If I would have told Detroit, Michigan, before this series that we were going to be playing Chicago in Game 7, I think everyone would have been pretty excited about that," Babcock said. "I love Game 7s. I'm excited about it. We've got a chance to push them out of the playoffs. It should be a lot of fun."