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Roy MacGregor

A shot at redemption Add to ...

Game 7.

Henry James might have thought "summer afternoon" the two most beautiful words in the English language, but he wasn't speaking for Canadians.

It's "Game 7," right from the earliest dreams of children on. It has been played millions of times on backyard rinks, frozen ponds, basements, driveways and imaginations, but tomorrow night in Detroit will mark only the 15th time in the long history of the NHL that the Stanley Cup final series will have gone to a seventh game.

For those most directly involved, it will be both dream and nightmare at the same time.

Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma - whose name may one day be pronounced in one take - has seen the nightmare and hopes beyond hope to feel the dream now that his stubborn Penguins have forced a final test with the defending-champion Red Wings.

Six springs ago, he was a journeyman forward with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim when they surprised even themselves and ended up facing the favoured New Jersey Devils in the 2003 Stanley Cup final.

He awoke from the nightmare of a 3-0 Game 7 loss to find himself on the front of the USA Today sports section, the puck in the air somewhere between him and New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur.

"That was my chance when it was 0-0," Bylsma said yesterday, the sting still evident. "And I do remember it vividly.

"That's going to happen [tomorrow] There's going to be a chance. There's going to be a play, a blocked shot to score a goal. That's where we put ourselves: One-game, one-chance scenario. … And there will be a picture the next morning."

There will, and no one can possibly know on which faces the sorrow will play, which faces the joy - though a certain advantage must lie with the Red Wings, who are not only defending champions, but who are 11-1 so far this postseason at home Joe Louis Arena.

Members of one team will raise the Stanley Cup one by one and know what Lanny McDonald meant when he said, after winning a Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989, that it is "the most peaceful feeling in the world."

Those who lose may never find complete peace in their hockey thoughts, haunted, as Bylsma is, by what could have been.

"It was a shot from the point," Bylsma remembers, "I tipped it and it hit [Brodeur]in the shoulder, and it went in the air. I had one more swing at it that I failed to make contact with."

A swing and a miss, and the opportunity for an Anaheim lead against the Devils became a Game 7 loss.

Bylsma can't ever forget and, ironically, neither can Detroit coach Mike Babcock, who was the Ducks coach that spring. They might have been celebrating the Stanley Cup together six years ago. This year, only one can raise it.

"It's light as a feather," McDonald said back in 1989. "I think I could carry it forever."

Just as those who lose also carry it forever - with only time lightening it, and never down to a feather.

Bylsma, a rookie NHL head coach who only took over the Penguins bench in mid-February, is acutely aware of how precious and fragile this moment is.

"I do think about it pretty much daily," he says. "I mean, my family has come to see me and it's like 'Can you believe what's happening? Can you believe?' And I'm like, 'Not really, I can't believe it.'"

Bylsma says he's never been the sort of person to deny his thoughts or able to ignore what's going on around him, as some in sports seem to do.

"It's a unique opportunity," he says. "Fifteen times there's been a Game 7. To play for the Stanley Cup … it's a unique and great opportunity."

In his only other chance, it was clear the Ducks were up against a more capable team. But a few lucky goals and some spectacular goaltending had put them in a position where, if the bounces continued, it just might happen. But, of course, it did not. And the proof was right there, in full colour, on the sports pages of USA Today.

"I don't know if I saved the picture," he says, "but I think it's probably somewhere. I don't look at it, I don't pick it up. It's not something that I like to think about. It's pretty much emblazoned in my memory. But that's the agony and the beautiful thing of sport: That we play a game, and we play it for some great reasons to win a Cup, to win a trophy, to be the best. When you don't get it, it's painful. And when you get it, it's glorious, and you get a lot of good pictures.

"You take the bad ones if you don't win and you put them in a basement in a box somewhere. We're looking for one we can hang on the wall."

 

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