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Adrenaline will take over when puck drops in Game 7

Friday, June 12, 2009

Whether it's in casual conversation or a quiet moment of reflection, Charles Smith is reminded of the overwhelming difference a Game 7 can mean between world champion and runner-up.

It's why the former University of Pittsburgh basketball star slept in fits, tossing and turning the night before he and fellow New York Knicks played the Houston Rockets in the deciding game of the 1994 NBA Finals. Fifteen years later, that Game 7 loss gives him no peace of mind.

He can't help but ask himself, what if?

"You remember that the rest of your life," Smith said. "That never goes away. You always look and say, 'How would my life be if this had transpired?' It never leaves you. It always haunts you. The personal acknowledgement of what you've done does nothing for you. The only thing you want is to win. When you don't, it rides you the rest of your life.

"To make it to the finals is a highlight, but it's a highlight that doesn't have any shine to it, because the next question is, 'Did you win?' "

When the Penguins visit the Detroit Red Wings at 8 tonight in Joe Louis Arena for the National Hockey League championship, it will mark the 15th Game 7 in Stanley Cup Final history. No team has won a seventh game of the Cup Final on the road since the 1971 Montreal Canadiens.

That adds to the pressure for players realizing boyhood dreams while coping with the stress accompanying a game of such magnitude.

"It's a lot of excitement, a lot of nerves," said Penguins winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who scored two goals in the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. "It's everybody's dream to play in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final."

The pressure is greater in the hours leading up to the deciding game of a best-of-seven championship series than it is during the actual game, said two former Pirates who pitched in pivotal Game 7s.

Steve Blass was rooting hard for Bob Moose to pitch the Pirates to victory in Game 6 of the 1971 World Series, hoping to avoid a seventh game. After the final out of that loss, Blass immediately became aware of what he faced.

"The most difficult thing is the time factor," Blass said. "Now, you know you've got to wait until 1 o'clock the next day. It's the longest time period in your life, because you do know there's so much on the line. Once the game starts, that's the best part of the day. It just seems like forever before it starts."

To kill time, Blass ate dinner with teammate Bruce Kison. About an hour into their meal, Blass realized they hadn't spoken a word. Kison wasn't about to offer any advice. Neither was Blass, who hardly slept that night and likes to tell about a Baltimore police officer stopping him while he wandered the streets at 4 a.m.

"There's no real planning on how you're going to react and what you're going to do for Game 7," Blass said, because "you don't know there's going to be a Game 7 until you win or lose Game 6."

For Kent Tekulve, it was an entirely different experience. The submarine reliever was a creature of habit and remained true to his routine to the point of superstition. When he ate at a Baltimore restaurant before Game 2 of the 1979 World Series — Tekulve got a save in the 3-2 victory — the waitresses were Pittsburgh natives and Pirates fans who recognized "Teke" and loaded up his strawberry shortcake.

Tekulve made it mandatory to dine on the same dessert at the same restaurant before every remaining game in Baltimore, and to have drinks at the hotel bar with Pirates fans.

"Don't do anything that upsets the routine," he said. "This is what's worked."

Despite their drastically different approaches, Blass and Tekulve found themselves with the same reaction. Blass threw a complete game in a 2-1 victory to clinch the '71 World Series title; Tekulve got the save in 123 innings of relief to preserve a 4-1 victory in the '79 World Series.

Both jumped into the arms of teammates in celebration.

Dr. Carole Kunkle-Miller, a South Hills-based clinical and sports psychologist who has worked with athletes, including the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, believes pro athletes have a unique ability to handle pressure-packed circumstances. She recommends Penguins players use imagery to relax and visualize personal highlights to strengthen their confidence.

"It is true that athletes who are really successful seem to be able to compartmentalize. They put the play behind them and focus on the present, not the future," Kunkle-Miller said. "I do think that does make a difference. If someone is an elite athlete, they've learned to master that fairly well.

"I think they have prepared their whole lives for this. They've visualized it, played it out. They've watched hours and hours of television and film and imagined themselves in those plays. That's incredibly helpful. This is a part of what they do: They eat, sleep, breathe and play hockey. It feels natural."

Even if the sleep comes sparingly, there is no time to be tired.

"By the time you're on the floor, you're pumping adrenaline," Smith said. "You're not going to be tired. You're a pro. You're supposed to be here, as far as Game 7. Your thought process is, you deserve to be there. It calms you down, knowing that you've arrived."

Blass considers the ability to go into a zone a necessary personality trait.

"That's a gift pro athletes have to have," Blass said. "There's nothing else going on in the world."

Once the game begins, it's just that — a game.

"What prepares you is what you have done your entire life. You have trained yourself your entire life to be able to react a certain way under pressure," Tekulve said. "When it comes to Game 7, there is finality.

"My guess will be, when the Penguins go out on the ice, they'll hear the noise in the building and see the people in the crowd. When they skate, and the closer they get to dropping the puck, all those things will vanish. For those 60 minutes, nothing will exist outside the boards. What they're conscious of will be entirely inside the boards. The noise will disappear."

Additional Information:

Seven for the ages

Seven great Game 7s in sports history:

1960 World Series : Bill Mazeroski hits game-winning home run off Ralph Terry in bottom of ninth, as Pirates beat the N.Y. Yankees, 10-9

1970 NBA Finals : Injured Willis Reed makes dramatic comeback, scores first two baskets to inspire New York Knicks to 113-99 victory over Los Angeles Lakers

1994 Cup Final : New York Rangers survive three face-offs in own end in the last 37 seconds to beat Vancouver Canucks, 3-2, for first Cup title since 1940

1991 World Series : 36-year-old Jack Morris pitches a 10-inning shutout to outduel John Smoltz as Minnesota Twins beat Atlanta Braves, 1-0

1971 Cup Final : Henri Richard's third-period goal lifts Montreal Canadiens to 3-2 victory over Chicago Blackhawks in last Game 7 win by a road team

1984 NBA Finals : Boston Celtics withstand a rally by Los Angeles Lakers, who trimmed a 14-point deficit to 3 with 1:00 left, for 111-102 victory

1955 World Series : Johnny Podres pitches a complete-game shutout, as the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees, 2-0, for first title since 1900




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