For the last two games, the Montreal Canadiens have fought back to avoid their season ending. That has been successful as they have forced a Game 7 in Toronto on Monday night.
In that game, they will also be fighting to avoid their season ending. But they’ll be fighting for something else: winning a series. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a difference. The Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to win in their last seven potential series-clinching games over several seasons.
Montreal won their only such game in last year’s post-season (Game 4 in the qualifying round), but their last opportunity before that was in the 2015 first round. After starting with a 3-0 series lead against the Ottawa Senators, it took Montreal three tries before winning the series in six games.
The pressure of having “something to win” instead of “something to lose” is a change in mindset that can bias how you act. That’s not to say it will affect the Canadiens, but it’s something to keep in mind especially if the game remains close late into it.
On the other side, you have the Maple Leafs. Heavily favoured going into the series, they lost the opening game before rolling with three straight wins. Then, with an opportunity to clinch the series and move on, they lost two straight games.
They now go in the opposite direction. They now go from something to win to something to lose as well. As much as teams say you can play as if your season depends on it, there’s a part of that you cannot manufacture or fake. A must-win game is an overused phrase except in cases when, well, you literally must-win.
We talked about the franchise’s history, and a lot of that means nothing to the current roster but some of them have dealt with Game 7 losses before. That pressure of “not again” returns with that. Eventually, though, you have to get over the hump, and every team does. The Boston Red Sox were down 0-3 to the New York Yankees but rode eight straight wins to the World Series. The Chicago Cubs waited over 100 years, but ended up winning a championship.
Eventually, history gets rewritten and narratives break. Past success leads to failure, just as past failures lead to success.
The Canadiens have won exactly three games in a row three times this season. They’ll either match their longest winning streak of the season, or see their season end.
Pressure is not only a team metric. The pressure for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner is for different reasons than that of Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza. Same thing for Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki versus Shea Weber and Carey Price.
The Canadiens have not had the opportunity to win an NHL playoff series (not post-season) since 2015. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, CBC’s playoff introduction had a song pointing out that the chance may never come again.
For some players, and potentially for the two groups as they stand today, it won’t.
Game 7 is a magical phrase in sports. There’s nothing like the stakes it brings. There’s always pressure in the playoffs, but on Monday night, it will be different. The team that handles it best will likely be the one that moves on.