Pens hope to draw on experience in Game 7
Words of wisdom or a warning — either way, a moment recalled before the Stanley Cup playoffs by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma should stick with his players as many prepare to play in their first NHL Game 7 tonight.
"The memory still haunts me," Bylsma said of a personal Game 7 nightmare.
His visiting Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the New Jersey Devils were scoreless in the opening period of the deciding 2003 Stanley Cup final game. The net guarded by future Hall-of-Fame goalie Martin Brodeur showed an opening on one side, and Bylsma, then a forward, had the puck on his stick.
It never crossed the goal line after his shot, and an Anaheim club that also included Penguins right wing Petr Sykora ultimately lost, well, everything .
As veteran Penguins defenseman Philippe Boucher told second-year blueliner Kris Letang, "Game 7s stay with you forever."
The Penguins will carry that knowledge into Washington's Verizon Center tonight for Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Capitals — though most of the club's young nucleus has no notion of what to expect from a contest of this magnitude at the NHL level.
Centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, defensemen Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will boldly go where they have never gone before. The Penguins last Game 7 occurred in the 2001 East semifinal against Buffalo — only 11 months after Orpik was drafted.
Conversely, tonight marks the third consecutive Game 7 for a majority of Capitals' players. Washington won one at home against the New York Rangers in the first round and lost in front of their fans against Philadelphia last postseason.
"I think it has a calming effect," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "We have been here before.
"We can draw on that experience."
Like most teammates, Crosby cannot. He has never played in a Game 7 at any level. Other Penguins, such as center Max Talbot, have only Game 7 experience from the minors and their junior hockey days.
"We talked about it," said assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald, whose Game 7s as a player included wins in 1993 and 1996 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh. "We had a meeting. Dan went around and picked out the veterans. He talked about himself and when he played, and asked me and Billy Guerin and Hal Gill and (Philippe) Boucher, and then asked, 'How many guys is this the first?'
"There's always a first."
There's also always a nervous energy from the moment a player awakes to well into the game, Penguins winger Craig Adams said. His Carolina Hurricanes won home Game 7s in the 2006 Eastern and Cup final.
"Those were my first ones in the NHL; I had ones in other leagues, but it's different in this league," Adams said, adding home-ice advantage is not a be-all and end-all determining factor even though road clubs have won only 36.8 percent of Game 7s (46 of 125).
"It depends on the mentality of your team. Some teams play simpler games on the road. Maybe that can be a benefit in the long run.
"(The Capitals) have a great crowd, and they really feed off it, so I don't think it will be a disadvantage to them."
Even without an NHL Game 7 to his credit, Talbot believes the Penguins are at less of a disadvantage tonight because of experience gained from winning an elimination-Game 5 at Detroit in the Cup final last season.
Crosby did not disagree, and acknowledged that memories from a summer full of disappointing thoughts about that losing Cup final experience will serve as all the motivation the Penguins need to pass this postseason test.
They are, he indicated, desperate for another trip to the Eastern Conference final — but not necessarily more now than at any point in this series.
"The way I look at it is every game is pretty desperate in the playoffs," Crosby said. "In this one somebody's got to go home, so you've just got to leave it all out there."
A statistical breakdown of Games 7 involving the Penguins and Capitals:
After Game 6 loss: 0-4
After Game 6 win: 2-2
*-Penguins won at Washington in 1992 Patrick Division semifinal.