BARNES: Pretend Stanley Cup final Game 7 players will do it for real

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FORT LAUDERDALE — The Stanley Cup final has gone to Game 7 just 17 times in National Hockey League history, and only two of those required the nail-biting addendum of overtime to declare a champion.

But on snow-clogged streets and in empty parking lots, on ponds and sloughs and indoor rinks all over Canada and the United States, and indeed in Finland and Sweden and Russia, that pivotal game is played over and over, and the winning goal is always scored in OT.

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And somehow, though it defies the odds, nobody ever loses.

It’s the romantic notion that fuels dreams and helps fight off the cold under street lights in January. But only two men have actually lived that dream in full, and both have left this mortal coil, so there isn’t a soul on the planet who can describe exactly what it feels like to be that OT hero. Detroit’s Pete Babando slapped a shot past New York Rangers netminder Chuck Rayner in double OT in 1950 to win the Cup, and Tiny Tony Leswick, also with Detroit, beat Gerry McNeil of the Montreal Canadiens four years later for the same privilege.

“That’s actually what makes this whole thing awesome is the context of it,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. “Nobody ever, ever has played on a (backyard) rink in Canada and scored the Game 3 overtime winner in the qualifying round. It’s one game, always. And that is the context of this game and the one that we will live.”

Oiler defenceman Brett Kulak lived it as a kid in rural Alberta.

“You want to visualize the biggest moment when you’re a kid, the most exciting, thrilling thing,” he said. “So it was always Game 7 OT, you get the last shot and you put one in, whether you’re playing by yourself or you’re playing with a bunch of your friends. It’s always that scenario. To be in it now is a pretty cool feeling.”

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As kids, you live that moment vicariously through the actions of your heroes. You are Bobby Orr, giving St. Louis the real blues. You’re Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. On Sunday, Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl was asked who he was when he always scored the goal to win the big game.

“Who was I?” he asked in return. “Leon. In Germany. Cologne.”

After digesting the question, he said Pavel Datsyuk was his favourite player, so one supposes he could have been manifesting Datsyuk’s dangles in his dreams.

“But I think in those moments you’re just yourself and you’re dreaming of being in those situations,” Draisaitl continued. “There is such a movie playing in your head, playing on the street or wherever you were. It is special to be in that situation right now and get a chance to be part of it.”

The subtitles change perhaps, but the same movie plays in Finland and Russia too.

“I think this is why we play the game, you know, for games like this,” said Florida defenceman Anton Lundell, who was born in Espoo, Finland. “You grow up watching NHL, especially the playoffs and the finals, so you remember games going into overtimes and Game 7s and you always dream about being in that moment.”

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There are 35 Panthers and 34 Oilers players listed on the official NHL rosters, and just one has played in a Game 7 in a Cup Final, Florida’s Vladimir Tarasenko. That’s how rare a treat this game has always been. He was asked how well he slept before Game 7 in 2019, when the Blues would go on to beat Boston 4-1, on the road no less, to claim their Cup.

“To be honest, I slept better than I did before Game 6,” said Tarasenko. “I think it’s pretty obvious. Since you was a kid, you played knee high kids Game 7 of Stanley Cup Final. In Game 6, you have a lot of options in your mind. Game 7 is one game. You just have to prepare yourself and sleep is an important part of it. When the puck drops you will be able to control your nerves. It’s the same game you played for many, many years. I feel whoever can control their emotions better will have a better chance.”

So you embrace the moment, but let your emotions run at your peril. And you know this could be the only time you ever win a Cup, or worse, it could be the closest you ever come to it. The Oilers have to win it on the road, and that’s never easy. The Panthers have to forget about three straight losses, and those are fresher memories than any game they played and won as kids.

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“It’s even. It doesn’t matter what has happened to get to this point,” argued Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk. “It’s easy to forget. You forget everything that has happened throughout this whole season really. The whole season comes down to one game, at home. How could you not be so jacked up for this? This is absolutely incredible.”

He’s right about that, of course. Some great players have played for the Cup only in their dreams. So Panthers forward Kyle Okposo impressed the uniqueness of this opportunity upon his eight-year-old son on Sunday morning.

“I said you know what I was doing when I was your age? I was in the driveway with my roller blades on pretending I was in the Stanley Cup finals, and how special is it that you’re going to be able to go to the game.

“Definitely, you’ve got to embrace it, just smile and enjoy it because this is what, the 18th one, so there are 18 different sets of players who have experienced this match and you’ve got to embrace every second of it.”

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