Somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam that professional athletes collect over a career is a picture that Penguins coach Dan Blysma might want to post on his team's bulletin board and explain before 8:00 p.m. Friday night. It's a picture of Game Sevens and what might have been.
The picture shows a younger Blysma in a Mighty Ducks uniform swatting futility at a puck hanging in mid-air. The story behind the pictures tells much more.
Blysma was a fourth-line banger and grinder, and "energy guy" with the Ducks when they ran into the New Jersey Devils in the spring of 2004. The series stretched to a seventh game, and early in that game, Blysma had the chance of a lifetime.
He blasted a shot at Martin Brodeur, but the rebound got away from the future Hall of Famer and hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Blysma took a swipe at the rebound that had nowhere to go but into a largely empty net behind Brodeur. He missed.
Make contact, the Ducks lead 1-0 in a series full of tight games and maybe, just maybe, hang on to win. Make contact, and Dan Blysma maybe scores the Cup winning goal and becomes a franchise hero. Make contact, and they can never take your name off of the Cup.
Miss, and your team loses the game, loses the series, you never get back to the Finals as a player. You only get one chance at immortality like that, and Blysma missed it by the width of a paperclip.
Blysma says that he remembers the picture, remembers seeing it the next morning on the cover of USAToday, but doesn't remember where his copy of it is. All he remembers is that his team lost and how much that hurt in the days and weeks following that.
The coach doesn't need to tell his still-freakishly young team about the pain of losing. After being overwhelmed by Detroit at this time last year, they know all too well the pain of losing. Sidney Crosby carried that all of the way back to Nova Scotia with him last summer.
What Blysma needs to reinforce to his troops is something they have never had before: a chance. One chance, one game, maybe one shift or a single shot on goal can change the course of a game, season, career, or a lifetime. They never got closer than 3-1 last year. They never had the chance to send the Wings home.
Forget everything that has happened in this series to this point. Everything. All of it. None of it matters now. Not the Game Five meltdown, not the gritty Game Six, not the offensive drought in Joe Louis Arena—none of it. All that matters now is Game Seven and one last chance to grab the holy grail.
The Penguins of 1992 thought that they had the Cup cornered. They had won the last two and had on their roster possibly the greatest player ever and a not-too-bad understudy in Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. A third, fourth, or even fifth Cup did not seem out of the question.
Then, Lemieux contracted Hodgins Disease and tried playing through a Cup defense while fighting off the after-effects of radiation treatment. The Pens lost the Cup in 1993 and never played for it again the rest of Mario's remarkable career. Just because you are young and brilliant doesn't guarantee the future.
Dan Marino appeared in a Super Bowl at age 24, and when he lost, the sporting world said there would be other days. He never played in another Super Bowl.
Treat Friday night as what it is—the greatest opportunity of your life.