BRIGHTON, Mass – To hear David Backes tell it, a Game 7 is a completely different animal.
“I liken it to almost a 60-minute overtime intensity kind of game. Playoffs are a notch up and a Game 7 is another notch up where every play is magnified and every hit matters,” said Backes, who was on the winning side of a pair of Game 7s in the St. Louis run to the conference finals in 2015-16. “Every puck needs to get in and every shot needs to get blocked with all of our bodies in front.”
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It’s something that young hockey players dream about growing up with game-winning goals scored in their driveways and those scenarios dancing through their heads along with the imaginary adulation and visualized glory.
That’s the message that Bruce Cassidy was trying to get across to his team prior to a pressure-packed Wednesday night Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden that will decide who faces Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup playoffs second round.
Certainly, there's a lot on the line for the Bruins and Leafs, but it’s also the kind of big stage any athlete worth their salt fully embraces.
“Game 7, they talk about pressure versus embracing the moment. Pressure to me is [Monday] in Toronto with those first responders. They were under pressure. That’s pressure to me...real-life pressure. This is a game that players dream about being in this situation...Game 7,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Playing road hockey in a small town in Canada or playing in a big city in the United States or somewhere in between, that’s what it’s all about. Enjoy the moment. Prepare to play well and now you’ve got to go out and embrace it. That’s the simplest message we can give to our players: Do your job, do it well and trust the guy beside you that’s done it all year. That’s the mentality we have to have for a full 60 minutes.”
All of the leadership and the wise words from Backes, Zdeno Chara (tonight will be his 12th career Game 7, tops among all active NHL players) and Patrice Bergeron (nine career Game 7s before tonight) can certainly be a difference-maker for the Bruins as opposed to the younger, less experienced Maple Leafs.
That leadership and experience come into play in a major way to get the young, inexperienced Bruins ready for their first Game 7. Rookies Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Sean Kuraly will all be playing in their first career Game 7 and even David Pastrnak. a more experienced young player, will participate in his first do-or-die Game 7.
“It’s do-or-die for both teams now. It’s two good teams going at it and we’re going to be ready to play our best hockey. That’s the only way to approach it,” said Kuraly. “We tried to approach each of the last two games like a Game 7 and a must-win, but now it really is that. It’s higher stakes and we need to compete at the highest level we can and have faith that what we’ve done all year is going to work.
“We know we can follow the lead [of the veterans] and if we follow their lead, trust in them and follow them like we have all year, it’s going to work out just like it has all season for us.”
Clearly, there will be nerves and jitters with their playoff lives on the ice, but to a man, all of those young players pointed toward their proven, grizzled, veteran leaders that who have been on the winning and losing sides in their distinguished careers.
“You realize that this game is important. The pressure, though, you don’t want to feel any of that. You know what’s on the line and you know you have to show up and play. You have to break through and I think we will,” said McAvoy. “There is a lot of confidence in this locker room still. We’ve had such a good year and we still have the confidence in this room that we can get the job done.
“I know [Zdeno Chara] will be ready to go, so I’m going to have to lean on him. I know it’s going to be very emotional with the home crowd, and with what’s at stake. But you grow up dreaming of playing in these moments in a Game 7, so I’m going to enjoy every single moment of it.”
On the other side of it, Toronto's Jake Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk and Patrick Marleau have all been on the losing end of plenty of Game 7s and their younger guys Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have never been there before.
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Boston’s experience and leadership married with their strong rookie class should be the major difference-maker in this high-pressure game. Then again, that’s why they go out and play the games. Game 7 experience will go by the wayside once both sides are sucked into the pace and style of the deciding game in a series that’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride.