In speaking with the great Dave Damechek of ESPN Radio yesterday (I'm about 22 minutes in), the topic of pressure in Game 7 came up several times. Dave was convinced that it all ultimately falls on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and his schizophrenic road play in the Stanley Cup Final. I felt other players would feel equal, and more, pressure than "The Flower." (Yuck.)
Some players will feel the pressure, but shouldn't. Sure, Chris Osgood needs to excel in Game 7 and backstop the Detroit Red Wings to (another) Stanley Cup. But is there anyone who'd dare question his credentials as a money goalie now, even with a Game 7 defeat?
Is the pressure on Nicklas Lidstrom to perform better? Because he's still Nicklas Lidstrom even if the Wings don't win.
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Some players shouldn't feel any pressure. Unless Chris Kunitz finds a way to do less than nothing in Game 7, every Pittsburgh Penguins fan will see it as par for the course. Ruslan Fedotenko scored two goals to give the Tampa Bay Lightning the Cup in a Game 7; is anyone going to filet him if he doesn't do it again?
So as the police in Pittsburgh prepare for Steel City riots, here are the 10 people, places and things with the most pressure in Game 7.
10. Bill Guerin, Pittsburgh Penguins old dude
From the Brillo beard to the 38-year-old hound dog eyes, Guerin would be the quintessential "rally around the fogie" veteran in the Final were it not for the fact that the well-traveled winger (eight teams!) has one more Stanley Cup ring than Marian Hossa in his career. Still, this is last hurrah time for Guerin and the chance at another championship; and a big effort in Game 7 could also spark a big effort from linemate Sidney Crosby. It's still amazing Guerin's even in this spot, having starred in "Escape From New York: Long Island Edition" at the trade deadline.
9. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings coach
It bears repeating that Babcock was outcoached by a rookie in Game 6, as Dan Bylsma orchestrated a masterpiece of line juggling and matchups on home ice. The key of course being "home ice," and with the last change Babcock can attempt to get his forwards some favorable battles.
Between the two coaches, neither should be feeling a significant amount of pressure over the other, but based on their situations and the flow of the series we'd wager there's more pressure on Babcock. Then again, as he pointed out today: He's the one with the hardware. "I feel different than I did last year before we won, just because of the fact you've won. What are they going to say? You didn't win? You did win," he said.
8. Jordan Staal and the Penguins checking line
The Pittsburgh grunt line of Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke had an outstanding Game 6, generating both Penguins goals and enough foreign-tongued profanities to indicate they were frustrating the hell out of the Wings. That kind of tone-setting energy is essential in a big road game, as is establishing a forecheck. The Staal line can provide both, and needs to in Game 7.
7. The Joe
The single easiest prognostication for Game 7 is that the Red Wings are a dominant home team and the Penguins (specifically Marc-Andre Fleury) get nutty because of the Joe and its Flubber boards. As Babcock said: "We've been way better at home, way more comfortable, way quicker, way more assertive. We look forward to that again tomorrow."
So whatever mojo that old barn gives Detroit, they need it again in Game 7. The Joe can't let the Wings down. We'd park a wrecking ball outside of the joint as a reminder.
6. The Red Wings power play
Game 6 was won by the Penguins by virtue of their two penalty kills in the third period. Detroit's power play has been underwhelming in every game save for Game 5, where it struck for three goals. Including that game, they're 3-for-13 in their wins and 1-for-8 in their losses. To put it in "Punch Out" terms, if the Wings are looking for a knockout then the power play is their gold star upper cut.
Again, to put it in "Punch Out" terms.
5. Johan Franzen, former Conn Smythe candidate
The Mule in his first 11 playoff games: 8 goals, 7 assists. The Mule in his last 11 playoff games: 4 goals, 4 assists. The guy whose playoff output had some claiming him to be the embodiment of the Conn Smythe Trophy has been a non-factor in far too many games in the Final. The Wings need him in the finale.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, tremendous home ice goalie
Simply put: Fleury is one win away from never having anyone ever question him as a big-game goalie again.
Again, taking nothing away from his effort in Game 6 and the fact that (in our opinion) he didn't play all that badly in Game 5, the pressure is just tremendous on Fleury on Friday night. He's given up 35 goals in 12 games on the road in the postseason and 27 goals in 11 games at home. The Joe gives him the yips, but Jeff Passan believes he's got the right attitude: "After wins and losses, his countenance changes not. Fleury is not a goaltending robot, per se - automatons wouldn't let as many cheap goals in as he does - but he conducts himself in such a fashion, and maybe that's not a bad thing."
We don't believe he'll lose this game for Pittsburgh. The pressure is on for him to win it.
3. Evgeni Malkin, MVP/penalty machine
We still feel Malkin is one superior effort away from potentially winning the Conn Smythe even if the Penguins lose, but he's really made that theory difficult to defend with 10 PIM in his last three games and zero points. Assuming Crosby's checked into oblivion again (more on that in a second), Malkin and the second line need a huge effort in Game 7; or, he needs to combine mega powers with Sid and dominate this bad boy.
2. Marian Hossa, former Penguin
Mike Babcock today on Hossa, who is one dreary effort and a Wings loss away from being a playoff goat and an eternal hockey punchline:
"Well, the big thing Hossa has to understand is all he's got to do is do what he does. We've talked about that. I asked him who scored the goals for Detroit in Game 6 last year in the Final? He didn't know, and neither did I. That's the facts. But I knew we won. Doesn't matter who scores the goals, none of that matters. What matters is do your part and allow the team to win. He'll do that. He'll be great."
Are Detroit fans keeping their hopes up about this?
1. Sidney Crosby, Reebok
According to Sidney, he's a victim of circumstance in the Finals:
"You know, I think I'd always like to score more. I look back and some of the chances I've had just didn't really get a whole lot of luck. To be honest now's not the time to think about what could have been goals. The only way I'm looking at here is it's a great opportunity, and I've got to try to go out there and play my best game in the playoffs. No matter what's happened before, whether I had one goal or ten, doesn't really matter at this point. So, no, I haven't really thought about it a lot. But when I do look back, you know, just some bad bounces."
So the bounces must have been going his way when he was on a record scoring pace earlier in the postseason, but not in the Final. Yup. That's it. Not the inability to slip the incredible checking of Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. It's bounces.
Look, there are any number of factors for his struggles. Injury, perhaps. The ineffective play of linemate Chris Kunitz. The Detroit defense. But ultimately, superstars overcome the adversity. They have to. It's why they're superstars. So at the conclusion of the greatest playoff run of his life, Crosby isn't just a win away from the Cup -- he's a win away from signing off on a hockey legend.
If he makes a difference in Game 7 and Bettman hands him the Cup, fans will, for years to come, talk about that effort and the win over Ovechkin and the run on which Crosby led this team. Those are the stakes. That is the pressure. Is The Kid up to it?