NHL set up for ‘sensational’ weekend with Game 7s to decide Cup finalists

The NHL conference finals began with almost everything the league could ask from a marketing standpoint: the three largest American media markets, a dynamic Sunbelt team, speed, star power, scoring and toss-up matchups.

The only missing ingredient was the one both series just added: Game 7.

While the NBA suffered from a pair of duds in its conference finals, the NHL saw both its series extended to the limit for the first time since 2000, offering the ability to showcase the sport this weekend in unique and dramatic fashion.

"In a word: sensational!" NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said via text.

Hockey’s seventh-heaven weekend will kick off Friday when the New York Rangers host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8 p.m. ET at Madison Square Garden in the winner-take-all game of the Eastern Conference finals on NBC Sports Network.

The other Stanley Cup Final berth will be determined Saturday when the Anaheim Ducks host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8 p.m. ET in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at Honda Center on NBC.

"At the end of day, I thought both these series would go 7, but the way they did it sure was great to watch," NBC’s lead analyst, Ed Olczyk said. "The West has been a little bit more by the book in the way the teams have played while the East has been all over the map, but I don’t think anyone can sit there and tell me they know what’s going to happen in these games based on what’s already happened.

"As a hockey lifer who tries to promote the game as much as possible, there is no better reality TV going right now."

Game 7s have long been viewed as the pinnacle of a postseason marked by passion, sacrifice and attrition. In the hours before that emotion spills out on the ice, however, the overwhelming feeling is tension.

"You feel the intensity of everything you’re doing that day," said retired forward Ray Whitney, who went 6-1 in Game 7s with San Jose and Carolina, including a game-winner for the Sharks vs. Calgary in the 1995 conference quarterfinals. "All the joking is pretty much gone from the locker room and you’re looking at the clock the entire time.

"As a group, you try to do exactly what it was that got you to that point. Hockey is built around routine so you try to keep to your routine as best as possible. If a guy likes to watch TV and get ready that way, then by all means, let him watch TV. You don’t want to start telling him to do things that are not normal."

While the tension of the moment can be daunting, it also affords the opportunity for stars to be born.

"Game 7 heroes create their own legacies," said NBC studio analyst and retired forward Jeremy Roenick, who was a healthy scratch for the Sharks in Game 6 of the 1998 Western Conference quarterfinals before scoring two goals and adding two assists in a Game 7 win over Calgary and his former coach, Mike Keenan.

Tampa coach Jon Cooper admitted Thursday that he had no grand speeches planned for his inexperienced team before it faces the Rangers. He doesn’t feel the need.

"Two words: Game 7," Cooper said. "I don’t think it needs much more of an introduction than that.  

"I’m sure you hear the same cliche from everybody that’s ever been a part of a Game 7. Growing up in the streets as a kid, you don’t say you scored the winning goal in Game 1."

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