Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.
PITTSBURGH - The players on both sides can't afford to look at anything except Tuesday night, Game 7 -- a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years for the Rangers or the second straight year for the Penguins.
Whoever wins gets the rush of good feeling about moving on. That's incentive enough.
There's also another incentive that looms large over both of these relatively successful teams. Another win means staving off what could be big changes in the offseason.
The Penguins' sky very well could fall if the Rangers complete this comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren't going anywhere, but the team around them could change, and the fates of general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma could hang on this one game.
When team president and NHL legend Mario Lemieux sat with Crosby in the visitors' room at the Garden after Game 6 on Sunday night, it presumably was not to share his thoughts on what might happen if Pittsburgh loses Game 7.
But the whispers are increasing in this city where Penguins fans have enjoyed incredible stability since Bylsma took over for Michel Therrien during the 2008-09 season and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. They have lost two Game 7s on home ice since and reached only one conference finals, getting waxed by the Bruins last spring.
At the very least, questions about Marc-Andre Fleury, who has one year and $5 million remaining on his deal, will abound. Do the Penguins need to upgrade in goal to return to elite form?
What about James Neal, with four years and a $5-million cap hit for not so much production?
And there's the matter of re-signing either Matt Niskanen, one of their better defensemen, or Brooks Orpik, who has missed most of this postseason.
The Rangers still are the underdogs Tuesday night, but they dominated long stretches of the last two games. They are riding high on the strength of Henrik Lundqvist's play, the youthful vigor of Chris Kreider and the emotional strength of Marty St. Louis.
Despite being here for barely more than two months, St. Louis may have cemented his place in Rangers lore as he played three days after the death of his mother to score the first goal of the Game 6 victory on Mother's Day.
He may have further cemented his place in Rangers lore with his speech after Game 6, telling his teammates, "I couldn't be prouder to be a [expletive] New York Ranger."
If the Rangers win Tuesday night, they'll be playing that one during the Garden intros -- hopefully the edited version -- for years to come.
But if the Rangers can't push through, the questions will come like an avalanche.
What happens to Brad Richards? He has six more years on his hefty deal and has lost a step at age 34. Seeing him essentially take on the captain's role this postseason is a boon to his teammates, but can Glen Sather afford to let the amnesty buyout period slide by without freeing the Rangers from this contract?
And what of Rick Nash? He still is without a goal this postseason despite showing some good flashes at both ends of the rink. The Rangers are on the hook for four more seasons at a $7.8-million cap hit, plus Nash has a no-move clause through next year and a no-trade after that. Could Sather convince Nash to head elsewhere? Could Sather convince any other GM to take Nash?
It would be easier to not have to answer those questions just yet. Easier still to summon the energy and fight to win Game 7 and leave those questions for another day, or week, or even month.
One team will get to stave off the questions and move on. The other will be left facing a most uncertain offseason.
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