The prospect of getting the Eastern Conference Finals to a Game 7 seemed hopeful when the Penguins trailed the Senators 2-1 a week ago. But after seemingly seizing control of the series with a 7-0 win in Game 5, only to then drop a clinching opportunity in Ottawa, a Game 7 now seems not so much hopeful, but … what’s the right word? … ah, yes — terrifying.
If the Penguins win tonight, there will be many heroes; if they lose, many goats (and also no GOATs). Here are the top contenders for hero/loser status, as determined by hockey experts such as Mike Milbury and that dumb guy that always somehow gets retweeted into your Twitter timeline.
10. Evgeni Malkin
Malkin is leading the playoffs in scoring by a wide margin thanks to goals like this.
So it will be hard to make him into a goat in defeat. However, if the Penguins do lose, maybe it’s because they’re saddled with a player who clearly isn’t good enough to make the NHL’s all-time list of Top 100 players? Yep. That has to be it.
9. Olli Maatta
Maatta’s resurgence has been huge for the Penguins in the playoffs and makes him seem more like the long-term franchise cornerstone he was thought to be as a rookie. On the other hand, there will be only three defensive pairings in Game 7, meaning there’s a 1-in-3 chance Olli could be on the ice for a game-losing goal. WHAT WERE YOU DOING, OLLI?! YOU HAD TO GET HIM THERE! CLEAR THE PUCK! TRADE OLLI!
8. Patric Hornqvist and Justin Schultz
The Penguins may get back two of their best players for Game 7, talented additions who could make the difference in a tight game.
On the other hand, why mess with a roster that has dominated play for most of the last six periods? What were you thinking, Mike Sullivan, adding two rusty player in a game of that magnitude? Terrible move!
All of your pregame rituals, superstitions and lucky shirt/thong combos are made for games like tonight. The team needs you. They need every little advantage to tip destiny in their favor. Just realize that if the Penguins lose, it will probably be because you took a different route home from the grocery store than you did before Game 7 of the Caps series, YOU STUPID JERK. You ruined the City of Pittsburgh, idiot! Gah. You suck.
6. The X-Factor
The “x-factor” is the term sports media people use when they want to sound like they’re making an insightful prediction about how a lesser-known player could step up in a big situation, but it’s really a way to say: “Absolutely anything could occur and here’s my cowardly way to be able to say I kind of predicted whatever occurs.” So do keep an eye on X-Factor in the deciding game. He could save the Penguins with a clutch goal, amazing pass or game-changing hit. Or maybe he’ll ruin everything by having the season-ending goal bounce in off his skate. History has proven literally anything can occur in these situations.
5. Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel IS a Stanley Cup champion, or Phil Kessel WAS a Stanley Cup champion. The verb fate hangs in the balance tonight, along with a few dozen hot takey columns from the Toronto media.
4. Jim Rutherford
“The old man is beating GMs half his age with no end in sight!” we may be saying … unless we say that it’s probably time he retire for good because he didn’t add what the Penguins needed* at the trade deadline to win another Cup.
(*players who are incapable of getting hurt, of course)
3. Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby can captain a team to the Cup Final for the fourth time, clinching his status as one of sport’s all-time great leaders. Or, he can fail to fill up the stat sheet in a Game 7 at home against an inferior opponent, meaning it’s time to ask serious questions about whether Crosby blew his last, best shot at winning a Cup and if his career, while good, is ultimately a bit of a disappointment. Hey, good luck, Sid!
2. Mike Sullivan
Will Mike Sullivan exit Game 7 as the man with the magic touch who is only four games from becoming the first coach in 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups? Or will he be a man who is now on the sad Dan Bylsma career path? Tune in tonight to find out!
1. Matt Murray
By Game 7’s end, Matt Murray can be the hero goalie who won three of four after swooping in off the bench, sending the Penguins to another Cup Final and saving the season … or a failure who dropped back-to-back clinching games, blew Pittsburgh’s shot at a dynasty and undeservingly stole a job that was rightfully earned by beloved local icon Marc-Andre Fleury. Does that seem kind of unfair for a 23-year old guy playing a sport that turns on a flying piece of vulcanized rubber taking a weird deflection off a guy’s butt? Sure. But fate is fate.
I don’t make the hot takes. I just predict them.