Another year, another season, another seventh game. And as yet another representative of our fair home rests on the cusp of both glory and heartbreak, we are reminded that there is no sports city in America that more regularly tests its limits.
Where else does one of the best managers in baseball walk off the field, as Red Sox skipper Terry Francona did following his team's win on Tuesday night, and immediately inquire about the fortunes of his basketball counterpart?
"When I walked into the clubhouse," Francona said yesterday by phone when asked whether he paid attention to the outcome of the Celtics-Magic Game 5, which involved his friend, Doc Rivers, "that's the first question I asked: 'Who won the game?'"
The answer was, as it frequently has been during this millennium: Boston.
Winning, however, has not been everything, and it has not been the only thing either. Tonight's seventh game between the Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes will mark the 30th time this decade that a Boston team will play a decisive postseason game in which both sides quite literally have a season at stake. And while a large chunk of those contests have been Patriots playoff games (13) or Super Bowls (four), the Celtics (five), Red Sox (five), and Bruins (No. 3 tonight) also have reached a Game 7 (or, in some cases, a Game 5) for the right to advance ... or not.
In the last year, especially, we all have been reminded that there is dignity in defeat, too. Last spring, despite losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the seventh game of their first-round playoff series, the Bruins overcame a 3-1 series deficit and may have resurrected hockey in Boston; their victory in Game 6 continues to stand out as a potential franchise-altering moment. The Red Sox, despite injuries to Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz, pushed the Tampa Bay Rays to a seventh game in the American League Championship Series; their Game 5 comeback at Fenway Park last fall goes down as one of the great postseason rallies in baseball history. And the Patriots, even in the wake of a season-ending injury to reigning MVP Tom Brady in the first quarter of their very first game, resiliently strode to an 11-5 finish; their absence from the postseason was as much a statistical oddity as anything else.
And now the Celtics, forging on without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, are one win from a repeat trip to the Eastern Conference finals following Tuesday's blood-rushing Game 5 at the TD Banknorth Garden. Their latest comeback ensures that there will be at least one more basketball game played at the Garden this season, potentially another Game 7 on Sunday, depending on what happens in Game 6 tonight in Orlando.
Along the way, Boston has not merely fortified its image as Sportstown USA. What the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins have done is to give Boston teams a reputation as a required checkpoint on the way to any world title, the kind of opponent that necessitates an exceptional, exhaustive effort in order to be defeated.
The odds are against you if you are a visiting team here, but you still might be able to win. Regardless, you're not going to do it without going the distance.
"We're not afraid to play in this building in Game 7," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy assured following his team's Game 5 collapse on Tuesday.
But then, what choice did he have?
It's either that or the Magic lose in six.
The Bruins tonight are in unusual territory. Following a renaissance regular season, Boston entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins then wiped out the Montreal Canadiens and jumped to a 1-0 series lead against these Hurricanes, then lost three in a row. To their credit, coach Claude Julien's Bruins have regrouped to outscore the Hurricanes by an 8-2 margin in the last two games, forcing tonight's all-in affair on the ice beneath the Garden parquet. Because the Bruins are the favorites and because they have rallied to force a seventh game -- at home, no less -- the instinct is to say that a loss would be disappointing.
Yet, given the unpredictable nature of any one-game playoff -- this seems especially true in hockey -- the simple truth is that Game 7, in many ways, is not the real challenge. The hard part is getting there. The Bruins started training camp roughly eight months ago as a team that was, if nothing else, interesting, and have since blossomed into full-blown Stanley Cup contenders. Boston's fourth franchise has forced its way back onto the map and into our consciousness, and now the rest of the country knows that Boston is a hard-hitting hockey town again, too.
If the Bruins win? The Eastern Conference finals will begin here next week against the defending conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a series that could produce yet another Game 7.
Unless, of course, the Celtics deliver one first.
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