Dave Poulin: Game 7 is the toughest challenge for an NHL player, in a good way

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Game 7s. Five in total in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Winner takes all — as it should be.

It is the ultimate sign of parity, of compete, of willingness to do whatever has to be done to stay in the game.

That can be a frustrating thing for managers, coaches and fans. It’s something you want from players all the time, but it’s simply not sustainable over an 82-game schedule. For some, it’s not possible for seven games in a two-week period. The teams that win have more players with a combination of skill, will and staying power.

I played in eight Game 7s and they’re unique because of their finality: someone is going home. From the minute you wake up on game day, there’s a harsh realization that everything you do may be for the final time that season. The drive to the rink has a different feel. The trek to the locker room, quick hellos to arena personnel, game prep, stretching and camaraderie are all appreciated a little bit more. Locking eyes with a teammate in the medical room means something a little different.

Stepping on to the ice and looking down at the opposition is a reminder that only one of you will still be playing the next day.

Three series had been decided heading into Saturday, with the Colorado Avalanche flexing their muscle in the only sweep against an overmatched Nashville Predators squad. Both the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers looked strong in six-game triumphs over the Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals, respectively.

Colorado and Florida bring to mind the question: Which pair of next-gen superstars has the best shot at hockey’s ultimate prize? In a team sport where the Stanley Cup takes precedent over any individual award, several are vying to have their name and the word champion used in the same sentence.

Early statements by Colorado’s Cale Makar and Nate McKinnon were made loud and clear — with Makar netting 10 points in four games, an NHL record for defencemen — while impressive performances from Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau helped Florida win a series for the first time since 1996. Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were still in the game heading into Saturday night, and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were also on the precipice of taking that next step.

I also look for pedigreed teams that still have connections to their last championship season.

Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, who won the Cup with Boston in 2011, helped the Bruins get to Saturday’s Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. In Los Angeles, the trio of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick — winners in 2012 and 2014 — pushed the favoured Oilers to the brink.

Aleksander Barkov, left, helped the Panthers shrug off T.J. Oshie and the Capitals, Florida’s first playoff series win since 1996.

Pittsburgh fondly remembers 2016 and 2017, but Sunday’s Game 7 against the New York Rangers could be a last hurrah for the Penguins’ pending free-agents: Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust.

The St. Louis Blues, who will face the Avalanche in the next round, still have several key pieces from their 2019 Cup team. How hard they worked and how much fun they had is still fresh.

Other quick thoughts on this year’s playoffs:

  • Home ice is overrated. Five teams had won twice on the road heading into the weekend.
  • Eleven teams have used two netminders, and the only goalie-dominated series has been Calgary vs. Dallas — which wraps up Sunday — where Flames veteran Jacob Markstrom and rising Star Jake Oettinger have been terrific.
  • There has been an uptick in scoring after an explosive regular season, where goals were at a 25-year high. Offence is shining, which makes players happy and coaches uneasy. Several multi-goal deficits have been met with shrugs, followed by furious comebacks.

Hockey’s best two weeks of the year are coming to an end. Enjoy it while you can.

Dave Poulin is a former NHL player, executive and TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @djpoulin20

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