There is nothing in sports to rival a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. For a hockey fan, it's like waiting for Christmas -- the big day seems to take forever to come -- but when it does, it's well worth the wait.
Christmas comes once a year, but a seven-game Final series happen about as infrequently. Since the NHL's first expansion in 1967, the championship round has gone the distance just eight times, the last in 2009 when Pittsburgh beat Detroit 2-1 in Game 7. If the Stanley Cup Final really is the NHL's two best teams facing off for the championship, it seems logical that there would be more than eight seven-gamers in a span of 44 years -- after all, baseball's World Series has gone the distance 14 times in the same span (though not since 2002).
But baseball has just eight teams in the postseason and only two rounds of playoffs before the World Series, so there's a much smaller likelihood of upsets in the early going. In contrast, with three rounds and potentially 21 games to play just to get to the Final, at least one of the teams is often worn out from the journey.
"Just getting to the Final is a grueling trip," said Ken Daneyko, whose New Jersey Devils lost its bid to repeat as champions in 2001 in a seven-game final against Colorado, but who retired two years later with a third Cup ring when the Devils outlasted Anaheim in seven games in 2003. "You've got to win three seven-game series just to get there, and there are a lot of Game 7s within the conference. By the time you get to the Stanley Cup Final, one of the teams is often worn down. The other team often has a little more juice left in the tank than the other. That's why the Finals usually don't go to seven games."
Of the eight previous Final series that have gone the distance since expansion, only two (1987 and 2001) have matched the regular-season conference champs.
"There should be more," said Ron Hextall, whose goaltending carried the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers to the limit against Edmonton before the Oilers won the Cup, "In theory, you've got the best teams in the sport. It's the pinnacle of the game. I wish there were more."
1971: Montreal's Long-shot Victory
Jacques Lemaire is so well known for his defensive style of coaching that it's easy to forget he had one of the NHL's most feared shots during his playing days. But for all his brilliance, his best-remembered goal is a shot that never should have gone in. In Game 7 of the 1971 Final, the Chicago Blackhawks led 2-0 late in the second period and appeared to have the game (and the Cup) in hand until Lemaire teed up a shot from center ice late in the second period.
"The biggest thing I remember was that Jacques Lemaire's goal from the red line," remembered Jacques Laperriere, then a Montreal defenseman and later an assistant coach for four NHL teams over a 25-year period. "After that, the momentum switched to our side."
The fact that the Canadiens even were in the Final was remarkable. They had finished third in the Eastern Conference, and under the playoff setup at the time, this meant a first-round showdown with the defending champion Boston Bruins, who had set NHL scoring records in 1970-71 thanks to the play of Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. In addition, the Canadiens had taken the goaltending job away from Rogie Vachon and entrusted it to a kid from Cornell named Ken Dryden, who had only a handful of NHL games under his belt when the postseason began.
But Dryden staved off the Bruins' record-setting offense and the Canadiens upset Boston in seven games, and then beat Minnesota in six to earn a showdown with Chicago, the Western champion. The teams split the first four games before Chicago moved within a game of the Cup by capturing Game 5. Back at the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens rallied for a 4-3 victory to push the Final to a seventh game for the first time since 1965.
The prospect of having to win the Cup at Chicago Stadium, perhaps the most hostile arena in the NHL at the time, didn't faze Laperriere or his teammates.
"When you reach that point, there's only one thing that matters," he said. "You've got to go out and do the job -- win. You don't think about being nervous. You just focus on what you have to do."
For most of the first two periods, the only thing the Canadiens were able to focus on was the "0" under their name on the scoreboard. Then Lemaire, owner of one of the hardest slap shots in the NHL, came out of his own zone and teed one up from center ice.
"It must have dropped six inches," Chicago center Stan Mikita remembered years later. "Tony (Esposito, goaltender) was notorious for not being able to see the puck from long distances. I was in the (penalty) box on that end when he took the shot -- I might have had a better view than Tony."
The goal stunned the Blackhawks and gave the Canadiens new life. Henri Richard scored before the period ended to tie the score, then connected again 2:34 into the final period to put Montreal ahead. Dryden held off the Blackhawks the rest of the way to give the Canadiens their third Cup in four years.
Even Laperriere, whose resume includes eight Stanley Cups, conceded that the 1971 title was special.
"When you win that first Cup, you say, "'I'll remember this one for the rest of my life,'" he said. "I've been through eight, and this seems like the best."
There's nothing in hockey that can match the win-or-go-home stakes of Game 7 in a Stanley Cup final. But Laperriere said that for the Canadiens, whose fans were used to winning championships, losing was not an option.
"In Montreal, the only thing we thought about was winning," he said. "The only thing we talked about was winning. The only word we knew was winning. Winning was a religion in Montreal. We never thought about losing."
1987: The Wrong Cup
Winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP is a great honor. But for Ron Hextall, it wasn't much of a consolation prize.
It's not that Hextall has anything against being named the most valuable player in the postseason. It's just that the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender left the ice after Game 7 of the 1987 Final without the trophy he really wanted. The rookie goaltender earned the Conn Smythe as the MVP in the championship round for his heroics against Edmonton. But the Oilers went home with the big prize -- the Stanley Cup.
Hextall still felt the emptiness of going home without the Cup years later.
"Winning the Conn Smythe meant nothing at the time," said Hextall, now the assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Kings. "The loss was so disheartening -- I still think about it. I look back on it now and I'm proud of winning the Smythe, but I'd take the other Cup ahead of that one."
Through the first four games of the Final, it didn't look like Hextall would get a chance to win either trophy. The Oilers, looking for their third championship in four years, led 3-1 after winning Game 4 in Philadelphia and were poised to close the series at home. But Hextall wouldn't let that happen, making 31 saves as the Flyers rallied for a 4-3 victory in Game 5, then stopped 30 shots in a come-from-behind 3-2 victory in Game 6, setting up the first full-length championship series in 16 years.
Despite pushing the series to the limit, the Flyers weren't exactly brimming with confidence entering Game 7 -- possibly because their pre-game inspiration from Games 5 and 6 was missing. Coach Mike Keenan had inspired his troops before the two previous games by having the Stanley Cup wheeled into the Flyers' locker room. But the Cup was nowhere to be found before Game 7 -- it later turned up in the trunk of a car belonging to a trainer.
The Flyers knew they could use every edge they could find.
"It wasn't like we went out there thinking, 'We're going to win,'" Hextall said. "We had won Games 5 and 6, so we knew we had a shot. But we were playing maybe the best team of all time."
The Flyers' roll continued in the early minutes of the game. They capitalized on an early penalty and took the lead on Murray Craven's power-play goal 1:41 into the game. But Mark Messier tied it at 7:45, and Jari Kurri got what proved to be the game-winner at 14:59 of the second period. Glenn Anderson's insurance goal with 2:24 remaining in the third period assured the Oilers of being champions again.
Hextall was left with an honor he didn't much care for at the time.
"It was frustrating to have come so far and worked so hard and accomplished nothing," he said. "I look back at it now and realize that we accomplished a lot. But it was an empty feeling. I fretted about (that game) for months."
Part of the frustration at not winning was the grit the Flyers had shown. They trailed by at least two goals in all three of the games they won, and all were won with third-period rallies -- in Edmonton's six trips to the Final from 1984-90, the Flyers' three wins were the only games in which the Oilers lost when leading after two periods.
Years later, Hextall still had fond memories of that 1987 Philadelphia squad.
"This was a special team," Hextall said. "I've been on some dedicated teams, but never on one like that, where all 25 guys worked so hard. We were outmanned, but we took maybe the greatest team in hockey right to the end."
1994: The Drought ends
What a difference a day made.
With his New York Rangers worn down after losing Games 5 and 6 of the 1994 Finals to Vancouver, GM Neil Smith was glad the schedule called for an extra day of rest before Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. As eager as he was to see the team he had built end hockey's longest championship drought, Smith was content to wait an extra day.
"Having two days of rest saved us," said Smith, now the president and general manager of the ECHL's Greenville Road Warriors. "We were an older team and a lot of our guys had injuries. The extra day off really helped."
So did having the deciding game at Madison Square Garden, where a roaring, sell-out crowd was eager to see the Blueshirts win their first Cup since 1940 -- and the first ever in New York. "Playing before that home crowd was huge," Smith says. "We didn't want to be known as a team that blew a 3-1 lead in the Final."
Not that Smith wasn't nervous after seeing his team win three of the first four games, then miss a chance to win the Cup at home in Game 5 and get beaten badly in Game 6 at Vancouver. "I don't think I slept at all the night before," he said.
But the Rangers, who hosted Game 7 after finishing with the NHL's best regular-season record for the second time in three seasons, were anything but nervous. Riding the roar of the crowd, they dominated the first period and got goals from Brian Leetch and Adam Graves to leave the ice with a 2-0 lead. Trevor Linden's shorthanded goal early in the second cut the margin to 2-1, but Mark Messier jammed in a rebound late in the period to restore the two-goal edge with 20 minutes to play.
However, breaking a 54-year Cup drought doesn't just happen -- and the Canucks made everyone nervous when Linden scored again with 15:10 to play. Now it was a one-goal game -- and for Smith, the seconds turned into minutes. Linden's second goal "numbed the building," he said. "Just when we thought we had it -- we found out that it's never over until it's over."
The Canucks spent most of the last 10 minutes in the Rangers' zone, but goalie Mike Richter stopped everything in sight -- at one point getting some help from the goal post when a potential game-tying shot caught the iron.
Even the fates appeared to torture the Rangers. With the final seconds winding down, Steve Larmer dumped the puck out of the zone, but the play was whistled back on an icing call with 1.8 seconds remaining.
But by then, even Smith was starting to relax.
"As paranoid as I can get," he said, "I knew that they weren't going to score with that little time on the clock." Craig MacTavish won the last draw and the longest championship drought in NHL history was over.
"Carrying the Cup was surreal," said Smith. "It was higher than any high. When I came to New York in 1989, there was such doubt that anyone could ever build a Cup winner in New York."
To Smith, who had never been an NHL general manager before taking the Rangers job, building a championship team in New York was especially sweet.
"To have done it in New York, a place I never thought would win before I got there, was extremely satisfying -- one of the most rewarding feelings of my life," Smith said "To have done it for the fans -- there were people there actually crying. It was like the birth of a child. To have built that team and see the joy when we won the Cup was unbelievable."
2001: Not Everyone Loved Raymond
In 2001, the Stanley Cup Playoffs often looked like the NHL's version of "Everybody Loves Raymond," with Ray Bourque in the starring role. Bourque's quest for his first Stanley Cup was the story of the playoffs for most of the hockey world.
But not in New Jersey.
Veteran defenseman Ken Daneyko and his Devils teammates had no interest in seeing Bourque cap his Hall of Fame career by winning the Cup that had eluded him for more than two decades. As the defending champions, they were much more interested in making their own kind of history.
"We'd already won two Cups (the first in 1995), and a win would have put us in the class of a dynasty," said Daneyko. "Ray Bourque winning the Cup wasn't my story line. I wanted us to win and become a dynasty."
For the first time since 1988-89, the 2001 Final matched the regular-season conference champions; the Devils won the East and the Colorado Avalanche was No. 1 in the West. According to Daneyko, there were no secrets between the two teams.
"We knew how good they were," he said of the Avalanche, which earned the chance to host Game 7 by winning the Presidents' Trophy. "They finished with 116 points. They were the best. We knew what to expect. I don't think there was any extra pressure on us because we were the defending champs. We were both expected to be there."
The Devils had a chance to avoid a seventh game when they captured Game 5 in Denver. They went back to New Jersey with the opportunity to finish the series, but goalie Patrick Roy was superb in a 4-0 shutout that sent the series back to Colorado for a seventh and deciding game.
"We didn't put in a good effort in Game 6," Daneyko said. "That was the disappointing part. We should have wrapped it up and not left things to chance in Game 7. They had momentum going back to their building after winning Game 6."
The Avalanche rode that momentum and the home-ice edge to a 3-0 lead en route to a 3-1 victory, giving Bourque the one thing he never had won in a career that's earned him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The loss grated on Daneyko.
"It seemed that we didn't want it as badly as they did," he said. "We don't feel like we accomplished something just by getting to the Final again -- we weren't a Cinderella team that was just happy to be there. To lose the Stanley Cup Final like that was devastating. Anything less than a championship is a disappointment."
Though Daneyko respected what Bourque accomplished, it was hard to watch him skating around the Pepsi Center with the Cup that he and his teammates felt should have been theirs.
"He had a great career -- he's a Hall of Famer and maybe the best defenseman that ever played," Daneyko said of Bourque. "If I wasn't in (the Final), I'd have been happy for him. But it's tough to be happy for him when you're on the other side."
2003: Out of nowhere
Every team that goes deep into the playoffs carries a few extra players, skaters who might have spent most of the season in the minors but are on hand in case someone gets hurt or the coach feels the team needs a spark. Mike Rupp was one of those players for the 2003 New Jersey Devils -- a big, young forward who spent most of the season in the AHL.
"I played in Albany for 2 1/2 years, and they gave me a call in January," said Rupp. "I played in 26 (NHL) games and felt good. I kind of thought that was it until next season. I never thought I would get into the Stanley Cup Final."
But with center Joe Nieuwendyk unable to play in the Final against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim due to injury, Rupp finally got a chance in Game 4.
"We always kept an eye on him. We know the guy has talent," coach Pat Burns said. "We just have to force him to be able to use all his attributes every night."
Rupp said he was just happy to get the chance to play.
"I thought I might get into one game," he said. "I wanted to contribute any way I possibly could, maybe by winning a big draw. It didn't have to be on the score sheet."
Rupp had just 1 assist in his first three games as the Mighty Ducks battled back from losing the first two games to force Game 7 in a series that saw the home team win each of the first six games. Burns opted to dress Rupp again in the deciding game and play him on a line with Jeff Friesen and Jamie Langenbrunner.
The 6-foot-5 Rupp had a feeling something good was going to happen.
"I felt really good when I woke up," he said then. "I was probably the most calm I've been in an NHL game this year. The leaders, the veterans on this team, kept us very calm. They keep you laughing all the way to game time."
But there was little laughter at the Continental Airlines Arena once the puck dropped; the game remained scoreless through the first period as Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose goaltending had sparked the Ducks to the brink of their first championship, matched saves with Martin Brodeur. Just 2:22 into the second, though, Rupp made Burns look like a genius by beating Giguere to open the scoring, Ten minutes later, Rupp fed Friesen, who scored to give the Devils a 2-0 lead. With 3:44 remaining in the third period, Rupp assisted on another goal by Friesen as the Devils won 3-0 and earned their third Stanley Cup in nine years.
The victory gave Brodeur his third shutout in the Final, sent 20-year veteran defenseman Ken Daneyko into retirement with a third Stanley Cup ring -- and made Rupp one of the unlikeliest players ever to score the Cup-winning goal.
"Two weeks ago, I would never have thought this could happen," he said after earning the game's first star and adding his name to a list that includes some of hockey's immortals. "Coach Burns put me into this situation and showed he believed in me, and I've been blessed."
For his part, Burns said Rupp simply made the most of his opportunity.
"I kept telling him, 'You know what you have right now. You know the opportunity you have.' I kept on reminding him and he definitely took it."
2004: Andreychuk, At Last
Like former teammate Ray Bourque, Dave Andreychuk had to put in a lot of time before he finally got to sip champagne from Lord Stanley's Cup. It was well worth the wait.
"This is what we play for. This is the pinnacle," Andreychuk said after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history by edging the Calgary Flames 2-1 in Game 7 of the 2004 Final. "You dream about this day for a long time. It took me a while to get there. It's hard to put into words -- the years you get knocked out of the playoffs, the years you didn't make the playoffs, all the players you've played with."
In Andreychuk's case, that was a lot of years and a lot of players. Before finally winning the Cup, Andreychuk had played 1,759 games (1,597 in the regular season, another 161 in the playoffs) during 22 seasons, scored 634 goals and amassed 1,320 points. No one ever had played as long without winning a Cup.
So when Commissioner Gary Bettman uttered the magic words, "Dave Andreychuk, come on down," to receive the Stanley Cup, the Lightning captain was realizing a dream.
"It was a moment that has gone through my head lots of times," he said of the thrill of finally winning the Cup after more than two decades of frustration.
Andreychuk might have gotten his name on the Cup earlier -- he and Bourque were traded from Boston to Colorado together in 2000. But Andreychuk opted to sign with Buffalo that summer, missing the Avalanche's run to the Stanley Cup, which sent Bourque into retirement with a championship.
In the summer of 2001, Andreychuk signed with the Lightning, a franchise that had made the playoffs just once since entering the NHL in 1992. Andreychuk, a big goal scorer for most of his career, filled other roles with the Lightning -- he became a checker, a penalty-killer and a leader. He was named Tampa Bay's captain before the 2002-03 season and played a big part in helping the Lightning's young talent like Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier ripen into championship-caliber players.
"Our core young people started maturing," said then-coach John Tortorella, "and Dave and Tim (Taylor) came in and gave them the lay of the land as far as how the locker room is supposed to act and prepare."
Andreychuk had a private seat for the final seconds before the Lightning's victory. He was in the penalty box after being called for a tripping penalty with 22 seconds left in regulation, so the final seconds were a little extra nerve-wracking. When the final horn went off, he raced across the ice to join his teammates in the celebration.
"I was disappointed that I couldn't be on the other side with my teammates, savoring the moment," he said of the game's final seconds. "I clock-watched a lot more than normal."
Needless to say, his teammates and their coach were thrilled for their captain.
"It almost brought tears to my eyes," veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "That guy's been here so long, and he hadn't even been to the Finals."
Added Tortorella: "This guy wanted it so bad. He didn't need this to validate his career -- he's already a Hall of Famer. For him to get this -- what a sight."
2006: Beating His Hometown Team
Cam Ward didn't get to hold the Stanley Cup in front of his parents, who had season tickets in Section 102 of Edmonton's Rexall Place. He had to settle for bringing the Cup to Tobacco Road for the first time.
The Oilers were Ward's favorite team growing up in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park, Alta., and center Doug Weight was one of his favorite players. "It doesn't seem like it was long ago that I was watching Dougie from the stands playing the Dallas Stars in the first round," he said. "But they definitely were a team that I had the privilege of going to watch and cheer for, and enjoy doing so."
By 2006, Weight was Ward's teammate on the Carolina Hurricanes -- and wound up watching and cheering for the 22-year-old rookie after injuring his shoulder in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, a game the Oilers won 4-3 on Fernando Pisani's shorthanded goal in overtime. Although Ward made the save of the playoffs in Game 6, the Oilers won 4-0 to push the series to the limit for the fourth time in five years and the third year in a row -- a first in the history of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Oilers' win also kept Ward from celebrating a championship in front of his family and friends. Instead, it was back to the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., and a raucous, sell-out crowd. The Hurricanes gave their fans something to cheer about just 1:26 into the game when defenseman Aaron Ward (no relation) beat Edmonton goaltender Jussi Markkanen for a 1-0 lead.
Frantisek Kaberle's power-play goal early in the second period made it 2-0, but the Oilers didn't quit. They cut the margin in half early in the third period when Pisani scored, and kept the pressure on Ward and the Hurricanes throughout the final 20 minutes. But Ward was equal to the task, making a spectacular save on Pisani's breakaway with about seven minutes left to preserve the lead.
"You've got to give Edmonton credit," Ward said. "They didn't give up, and they threw everything at us. When you look at the first goal, it was as a bad rebound on my part -- a goal that I wanted to take back. You saw the same situation with the second time around, and I was fortunate to make the save."
The Oilers pulled Markkanen in the final two minutes, but Justin Williams scored into the empty net with 61 seconds remaining to assure the Hurricanes, who came into the NHL (as the Hartford Whalers) with the Oilers from the World Hockey Association in 1979, with their first Stanley Cup.
For Ward, who won only 14 times during the regular season as the backup to Martin Gerber, the victory in Game 7 was his 15th of the playoffs. He became the first rookie since Patrick Roy 20 years earlier to lead his team to the championship and win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.
"It's a huge honor to win the award," he said. "I truly feel that you could have given it to anybody on this hockey team. And to tell you the truth, you know it's completely irrelevant. The trophy that matters the most is that Stanley Cup."
The fact that he beat his hometown team to win the Cup didn't bother him a bit.
"I don't feel bad at all," he said. "I have been blessed with tremendous support through my family and friends back in Sherwood Park. I know they were a little bit torn before the series being hard-core Oilers fans, but they stayed loyal and supported me all along, and I am excited to go back and share it with them."
2009 -- Good to the last stop
The sell-out crowd at Joe Louis Arena was roaring, urging on their Detroit Red Wings as the defending champs tried desperately to score the goal that would have sent Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to overtime. As the final seconds counted down, the Pittsburgh Penguins must have felt like there were 10 Red Wings on the ice -- that's how intense Detroit's desperation was.
With the last seconds ticking away, the Wings finally got their opportunity. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped a shot, but the rebound slid toward the left circle, where Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom raced in to hammer the puck into the half-empty net.
Lidstrom got the shot off, but the expected celebration never happened. Instead, the Wings and their fans had to watch the Penguins celebrating on their home ice after Fleury somehow got across the crease and in front of the shot an instant before the buzzer sounded, saving Pittsburgh's 2-1 victory.
"I saw the rebound go to my right and Lidstrom coming in so I just dove for it and tried to get my body there," Fleury said. "I got it in the ribs. It was great."
Fleury was calm before the biggest game of his career -- so calm that defenseman Brooks Orpik was more than a little bit concerned.
"I was a little nervous before the game because he was really acting like a clown. I was talking with a couple other guys and saying I really hope he is ready to play here," Orpik said. "He made a couple of huge saves early. He was awesome all night, right from the beginning to the end. That one at the end was the best save I have ever seen."
Fleury had been yanked during Detroit's 5-0 victory in Game 5, but rebounded with a strong performance in a 2-1 victory in Game 6. In Game 7, he made Maxime Talbot's two second-period goals stand up, allowing only a late third-period goal by Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson and holding off the desperate Wings in the final minutes.
"He's amazing," Penguins defenseman Hall Gill said. "I have to buy him a bottle of champagne or something. I owe him a few drinks. He stands on his head when he needs to."
"It's a dream since you're a little boy," Fleury said. "To do that tonight was huge."