Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup playoffs are hockey’s special treat for its fans.
The win-or-go-home mentality tends to bring out the best in most players, infuses a special electricity inside the host team’s arena and guarantees the heightened importance of each mistake, each turnover, each save and each scoring chance.
With the St. Louis Blues about to take on the Dallas Stars in another Game 7 (7 p.m. Wednesday, TV: NBCSN), it might be a good time for a reminder of the types of guys that sometimes come up big in Game 7 situations.
The year was 1972 and the Blues were facing the Minnesota North Stars (Dallas’ predecessors) in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs.
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The teams battled into overtime in Minnesota with the score deadlocked 1-1 when the unlikeliest of heroes emerged — Kevin O’Shea.
O’Shea had only 13 goals in 133 career NHL games, but saved his biggest for Game 7 against the North Stars.
One of O’Shea’s two career playoff goals — and one of only 15 overall that he scored in 144 NHL games counting playoffs — gave the Blues a dramatic victory when his shot beat North Stars goalie Cesare Maniago at 10:07 of overtime.
The goal was memorialized with one of the classic calls by Blues Hall of Fame play-by-play broadcaster Dan Kelly.
The fact O’Shea picked up an assist from brother Danny O’Shea made it that much more memorable. Jacques Caron was the winning goaltender, Al Arbour was the Blues head coach and Arbour’s club went on to get swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the next round.
Sometimes a season can be defined by someone like Kevin O’Shea, who died in 2010 at age 62.
It’s not always the league scoring leaders or even the top scorers on either team that score the big goals, but someone who suddenly finds himself in the right place at the right time.
Mike Crombeen scored a double-overtime game-winner for the Blues in the 1981 playoffs to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Troy Brouwer, about to play in a remarkable eighth straight Game 7 in the playoffs, won the Blues’ first-round series against the Blackhawks with a third-period goal in Game 7.
“We’re a blue-collar team,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We’re really good at it. We’re going to have to bring our best blue-collar effort forward and if we do it, then we’re going to be in good shape. But it’s got to be a great blue-collar effort.”
Hitchcock is being coy with his choice of goaltenders for Game 7, saying he will make that decision Wednesday. Most figure the choice will be Elliott, who was pulled in the first period of Game 6 after allowing three goals on seven shots.
To a man, including backup goalie Jake Allen, the Blues expressed devout belief in Elliott following the defeat on Monday.
“It’s tough. He means a lot to us,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Not only this playoffs but he’s been a rock for this entire year. He and Jake have been great in net for us. Tonight’s a throwaway for him.
“It’s something that makes us hungrier as a team because we know he deserves better and we’re going to play a much better game in front of him.”
Whoever the Blues turn to should be happy the game is on the road. The Blues are 4-2 on the road in the playoffs this spring, including two wins in Dallas, and 3-4 at home.
“We’ve won twice in their building already,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t think it matters where you play a Game 7. You get a chance to play it, it’s special. I think our players will be excited.”
Hitchcock has to hope his team displays more excitement and energy than it did during a dismal first period at home Monday night in Game 6.
The Blues fell behind quickly 3-0 and despite a furious comeback fell to 1-3 in games when they have a chance to eliminate their opponent with a 3-2 defeat.
Elliott stole games earlier in the series, but this time it was Stars’ goalie Kari Lehtonen coming up big. No save was bigger than his pad save on Jaden Schwartz with 23 seconds remaining to keep the Blues from facing overtime.
“I think they’re disappointed,” Hitchcock said. “When we made it 3-2 we thought we were going to win the hockey game. There wasn’t a guy on the bench that didn’t think we were going to win the hockey game. So there’s disappointment and we’ll get over that.
“We’ll get there and we’ll get focused and we’ll play really well again.”
To hear Hitchcock tell it, the Game 6 defeat came down to “five minutes of shock.”
“Had a great start to the game. Once we got through the shock, we really played,” he said. “That’s the way we’re going to have to play. We’re just going to have to keep coming after them, and we’ll do it again.”
The Blues haven’t been to the Western Conference finals since 2001, when they swept Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars in four games to win a second-round series before losing to Colorado.
The winner will face the winner of another Game 7 between Nashville and San Jose.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Shattenkirk said. “This series has gone both ways, obviously, but what we’re confident in is that when we play our best hockey game they can’t play with us. We saw that (Monday) in the second and third.
“When they play their style well it’s something that doesn’t suit us well. I think we know what we need to do to get to our game and we can do it.”
The Blues have made things hard on themselves once again, but they enter this Game 7 with some confidence. Much of that is from beating the Stars seven times in 11 meetings counting the regular season, including two recent playoff wins in Dallas.
The last one was a dominant 4-1 victory Saturday in Game 5.
“I think that if you look at the way this series has gone with the way the regular season has gone, it’s even more fitting that we’ve got to Game 7 again,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s two good teams that were separated by two points, that at different times in the series have both had their way with their play. It’s the team who’s going to be able to execute and push through (Wednesday) and then at times, hold off when the other team is coming with their push.”