Don’t ask me. I have no clue.
And neither do you. Or coaches Rick Kowalsky of Albany or Sheldon Keefe of Toronto.
Don’t ask the Albany Devils or Toronto Marlies how Game 7 tonight in Toronto will turn out. Oh, they say they will be ready to play, that they will leave it all on the ice in this win-or-go-golf game. But in this back-and-forth-and-back-again series, predictions make as much sense as the Devils winning Game 6 did.
Which, by the way, they had no business doing.
But win they did, 4-1 Saturday at a sold-out Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, despite getting shellacked in Games 4 and 5 by a combined 12-3. They gave up six power play goals in those two games, looking helpless against the top-scoring offense that seemed to find acres of open ice to operate.
Worse, the depth of the Devils had been Zambonied down to bare concrete. Four top-line players — forwards Jim O’Brien, Pavel Zacha, and game-time scratches Mike Sislo and Brian O’Neill — were out with injuries. A fifth, defenseman Dan Kelly, is benched by the league, serving a 10-game suspension after headhunting Andreas Johnson in Game 4.
How did they win that game?
“Hard, simple hockey,” Kowalsky told reporters afterward.
It really was that simple.
The 44-year-old Kowalsky is hardly an old-timer, but he hates “cutesy” hockey. That’s when his highly skilled offensive players try to make SportsCenter-quality plays — which is odd, since the AHL is not getting on SportsCenter.
Toronto, ridiculously skilled in the offensive end, especially on the power play, scores goals as pretty as you will see. We are talking “oohs and ahhs” goals that make you laugh in appreciation.
Albany also has players who can do that — but a good number of them have been in street clothes. (That said, Nick Lappin’s drawing the puck through defenseman Connor Carrick for Albany’s third goal Saturday was nasty.) When the Devils have been successful this series, it’s been by playing tight (but not overly chippy) defense, and going old school on offense.
Dump the puck in and chase. Throw it on the net and crash the rebound. Bang it in and score “dirty” goals. Don’t wait for the perfect play; just keep making plays, and eventually good things will happen. That’s what the Devils did Saturday. That’s how they can beat the Marlies.
And do not do not do not commit dumb penalties. The Marlies did get five power play chances Saturday — unlike the conga line of Devils going to the box in Game 5 — and the Devils killed them all.
Before Game 5 at Times Union Center, I called it a must-win game — the series was tied at 2 at the time — because I saw no chance of the Devils winning two straight in Toronto, and three of four on the road overall. (Albany won the opener in Toronto.)
Of course, Albany got drilled 5-1 in that game, on the heels of losing 7-2. The prospects of winning the series after that seemed nestled between little and none, with little resting on the homerish side.
But Kowalsky said the Devils didn’t have to win two games in a row: They had to win one. Any team can win any given game. And the Devils did.
And now that it’s Game 7, he said, the pressure shifts to Toronto. He even agreed when a reporter in Toronto Saturday suggested his team is playing with “house money.”
“We feel that way,” he said. “We know it’s going to be tough.”
He’s wrong there, of course. There is no house money when it comes to Game 7s. If you get to a Game 7, whether it’s at home or on the road, whether you battled back from 3-0 or 3-2 or gacked away a series’ lead, there is pressure. It’s Game 7, there for the taking. Each team in this wholly unpredictable series has a shot at taking it. There is no Just Happy to Make it that Far consolation.
After Game 6, Kowalsky said all the walking wounded in the Devils’ locker room are “day-to-day” — which in hockey-speak means they might be available to play tonight . . . or could be in a coma. Again, who knows?
Don’t judge what could happen by Game 6. After the Devils’ dramatic Game 3 win at Times Union Center — tying the score at 2 with 21 seconds to play, then winning it in the first overtime, both on Lappin goals — you thought Albany would rip through the Marlies in Game 4. And that is just what the Devils did for the first 10 minutes of that game, leading 1-0, until the first of 127 penalties (give or take several dozen) led to Toronto scoring the next seven goals.
And Game 6? That should have been a coronation for Toronto. Instead, Albany blitzed the Marlies for two goals in the first 5:13 of the game.
But we can guess who will win this North Division Final series if certain things happen.
“It’s about playing smart, playing simple and really just having desperation and urgency in our game,” Kowalsky said in explaining his team’s Game 6 win. That’s the winning formula for the Devils. Always has been.
If this gets into an open-ice shootout, the Marlies have the clear advantage to go along with the home ice.
If this is a tight-checking, low-scoring game, the Devils have a real shot.
Which game will it be?
Judging by what we’ve seen so far . . . one or the other. Which is another way of saying: beats me.