“We are standing here on the cusp of greatness. Why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door? Let’s go get this. Let’s attack this.”#TBLvsTOR— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) May 14, 2022
Game 7 tonight. Frankly, it doesn’t matter who the two teams are in a Game 7. There is something magical about a seventh game in a best of seven playoff series. The Tampa Bay Lightning play the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at 7 p.m. in Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Win or go home. Move on to the next round or start setting up tee times. The finality of a Game 7 is what makes it so special. That makes every shift, every puck battle critical to the outcome of the game. From the opening puck drop to the final horn, there is nothing like a Game 7. I guarantee that when the players on the ice tonight were kids playing this game, they dreamt about making the play that wins a Game 7. One of those dreams will become a reality for someone in this game.
Tonight, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning face only their second Game 7 over the last three seasons of playoffs. They will win or go home. Their quest for a Three-Peat is on the line. A chance to be only the fourth franchise in NHL history to win three consecutive Stanley Cups is at risk. The pressure in a Game 7 to the coaches and players is palpable. Win or go home.
Follow the Leaders
Most hockey fans know the recent playoff performances surrounding the Leafs. Haven’t been able to win a first round series since 2004. Yes, the same playoffs that the Lightning won the first Stanley Cup for the organization against the Calgary Flames. Turns out, that was the last NHL season before the salary cap was instituted.
The Leafs recent past performances come into play because in a Game 7, recent experience is more of a factor than most would think. Success in the playoffs is a result of many reasons and experience is chief among them. That being the case, the last Game 7 for the Leafs was in the first round last year against Montreal. Toronto lost that Game 7 after blowing a 3-1 lead in games. The leaders in their locker room remain the same this year. John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Morgan Reilly. If Toronto is going to win, the leaders on the team have to lead the way.
Conversely, the last Game 7 the Lightning faced was also last year in the Conference Finals against the Islanders. The Lightning won 1-0. Tampa’s leaders came through. Ryan McDonagh blocked 5 shots. Yanni Gourde scored a short handed goal for the only goal of the game. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a shutout. His fifth straight shutout in an elimination game. Steven Stamkos has captained two consecutive Cup winning teams.
Game 7’s have that mystique that one play can change the outcome of the game. Team leaders have to show their teammates the way to win.
Game 7 Reality
The fact that any series gets to a Game 7 is telling. On its simplest terms, it means that the two teams evenly divided the previous six games. Doesn’t matter if one team won the first three then the other the last three. It also doesn’t matter if they alternated wins like the current series between the Lightning and the Leafs.
People are fond of saying that everything that happens in the regular season is meaningless in the postseason. In a Game 7, everything that happened in the first six games is a non-factor. The team that ends up on top at the end of the game is generally the team that wants it more. Sure, Toronto desperately wants to break the 18 year first round jinx. From the players to the coaches to the front office, the Leafs don’t want to hear that they blew it again. That undue pressure will be evident tonight in some players. Which ones cannot handle that level of pressure could determine the outcome of the game.
Now, the same holds true for the champs. They’re going for three in a row. Hell, they are going for history. First team in the salary cap era to win three straight. Fourth team in the 106 year history of the league to win three consecutive Cups. If anyone thinks the Lightning players are not aware of this, think again. Like Jon Cooper said: “Why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door?”
So Who Will Win?
The pressure of this particular Game 7 will be more on Toronto than Tampa. The Lightning have won three Cups in the 29 seasons they have been in existence. The Leafs haven’t won a Cup in 55 years. That equates to pressure. In addition, Toronto is the hub of the league. It’s estimated that for a routine practice, the Leafs issue in excess of 300 media passes. For practice. We’re talking about practice. The fan base for Toronto is relentless. The players know the history, they know the Everest level of expectations the fans have of them.
I’m not a gambling man but if I had to wager my last $20 on this game. Give me the guys who have done it recently, I’ll take the team that has shown me and the rest of the world that they can thrive in the pressure that a Game 7 brings. Sure, my affinity for this team, for the coaches and the players might slant me toward the Lightning, but I believe when the final horn is blasted, the Lightning will prevail. The Leafs will head home. I believe in these boys. That is what it comes down to – I believe.
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