It almost feels wrong to watch a game like Thursday night's Penguins-Senators Game 7 dispassionately. Playoff hockey, under any circumstances, is pretty tense. Overtime playoff hockey, by definition, is nail-bitingly, can-barely-look-at-the-TV tense. But overtime in a Game 7 -- with a trip to the Final on the line -- is almost too much.
To the fans inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh and to the ones watching in Ottawa (thanks, in at least one case, to the local fire department), a game like that stops being fun pretty early. But that's sort of the point. What makes playoff hockey so great and/or nerve-wracking is how quickly it can turn; there's really no time to relax. And so in a close game, every shot -- heck, every zone entry -- is dangerous.
When you have a rooting interest, watching a Game 7 is a rather miserable experience. But these are exactly the feelings that every hockey fan wants the chance to live through. I have no doubt that, say, Sabres fans would love the opportunity to once again have their blood pressure driven up by a hockey game. And so simply enjoying the show as an impartial observer is to miss out on the full Game 7 experience (though we suppose watching fans squirm/explode/have their spirit crushed is a big part of that show).
A game like Thursday night's is rare: It's been two years since any playoff Game 7 went into overtime. It's been five years since one went into double-overtime. The last time a conference final went 7 was just three years ago, but prior to that it had been 20 years since the last one. And this was only the fourth time in NHL history that a game went into double-overtime with a trip to the Final on the line.
This game wouldn't have lasted as long as it did if not for the brilliance of Craig Anderson, but ultimately it was a knuckling Chris Kunitz goal that sent Pittsburgh back to the Final with a 3-2 victory.
The close-calls tend to blend together in games like this -- the Phil Kessel optical-illusion near-miss stands out, if only because of how the crowd responded after apparently not seeing the definitive view inside the arena -- but the actual goals don't, and Kunitz scored two of them on Thursday night, his first and second of the entire postseason.
The first of those Kunitz goals was set up by a subtle, nifty Conor Sheary play at his own blue line, starting the rush in which Sheary would eventually feed Kunitz for the first goal of the game. The second of those, in double-OT, came off a pass to a soft area from Sidney Crosby, who appears to be heading into the Final strong. The Senators proved all postseason to be a resilient team, and in this one, they answered one Penguins goal within minutes and another within seconds. Erik Karlsson, somehow not just able to skate with fractures in his foot this postseason but thrive, played nearly 40 minutes. But the Penguins answered back when they needed to, as well.
When Game 7 was still tied at 1, Charles Barkley joked on the TNT broadcast of the one-sided Cavaliers-Celtics game that he was going back to his hotel to watch the hockey game instead.
Charles Barkley: "I'm gonna sneak back to the hotel, watch the rest of the hockey game - it's 1-1 y'all - and I'm gonna pack up my stuff." �� pic.twitter.com/xddUsCaZY1- Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) May 26, 2017
I bring this up not to get into an NHL-versus-NBA comparison, but rather to point out that word of an instant-classic in the making began to spread even before it had ended. (One downside to this game, especially with plenty of casual fans likely tuning in: some questionable officiating.)
And so the Penguins win sets up what should be a pretty fun Stanley Cyp Final, no matter what the teams' records say. It will pit the league's brightest star and one of its highest-profile teams against the Nashville Predators, an organization that finally broke through this season and will host one hell of a party in Game 3 next week. Game 1 will be in Pittsburgh, starting Monday night. The greatest show on ice is just getting started.