BOSTON — Fifteen years on, Ville Nieminen still thinks about what he could have done differently. His idle thoughts are a reflection of the emotional stamp every Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final leaves on its participants.
Nieminen’s playing career included a championship — captured in a Game 7 with Colorado in 2001, no less — but he still wonders about the one that got away a couple years later while he was a depth winger with the Calgary Flames.
More to the point, Nieminen agonizes over how he might better have used his 10 and a half minutes of ice time during a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a winner-take-all game for the 2004 Cup Final.
"Yeah. I remember," he says now. "I wasn’t at my best. I still know what I did wrong."
Nieminen believes the moment simply got the best of him. After playing an effective 18 minutes and registering an assist in Game 6 for Calgary, his mind raced in the leadup to the game you dream about most as a kid.
For Nieminen, it came from a good place.
He wanted so badly to do well that his racing mind kept his natural instincts from kicking in. When he got on the ice, there was too much hesitation to his game.
"I was a little shy to go for it," said Nieminen. "I wasn’t at my best because I was a hockey romantic. I was romanticizing, I think, a little too much of Game 7s and what’s going to happen, how this is going to end, what I’m going to do.
"That’s probably because the whole winning the Stanley Cup and the whole NHL was so big of a thing for me growing up, and I really didn’t have the tools how to prepare for Game 7s."
Preparing for one with a title on the line at the end of a 100-plus game season is particularly daunting. This remains a sport played with rubber on ice and the outcome isn’t always going to be fair.
Weird things can and will happen.
"It’s just going to come down to bounces and calls, I think," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said recently. "That’s how these things normally play out."
Take Nieminen’s Flames, for example.
They were oh-so-close to ending a Canadian championship drought that exists to this day. Martin Gelinas appeared to score what could have been a Cup-clinching goal for them late in Game 6, but there was no conclusive replay available to count it. Then, after losing in overtime, they had to go on the road for Game 7 and got beaten by one.
"It was a long road we skated," said Nieminen. "Tampa Bay was a really good team. They had star players who carried the load.
"Tampa Bay had just a little bit better players to make a difference."
Nieminen is now a promising head coach for Pelicans in the Finnish Liiga and has been serving as the colour commentator for the Finnish language Viasat broadcast at this Stanley Cup Final. Watching the Bruins and Blues grind towards a seventh game has brought back memories from his own Stanley Cup experiences — both of which saw the road team win a Game 6 before taking Game 7 on home ice.
As much as he admires the Blues’ game, he believes it will be extremely difficult for them to get up off the mat after squandering an opportunity to close out the series at Enterprise Center on Sunday night.
Now they have to try and get the job done in hostile territory.
"You’re f—ing alone there," said Nieminen. "There’s only 20 guys versus 20,000."
"The good thing is that they have a good road team, good road record," he added. "They have only one plan how they play hockey and it almost got them through. They had a 14-9 lead in scoring chances for the first two periods [in Game 6] and they let it slip away.
"They just have to play their own game as good as they can. They will have a shot, but they have to believe. The Blues need to have a killer instinct right off the bat."
That mindset is reflected in the advice he’d offer anyone preparing for a game as big as this one.
"Make sure you’re anticipating, you’re going. Do not think," he said. "Even if you feel tired, you’re scared or you’re too excited or you’re too nervous — everything — f—, keep playing. Get involved, keep skating, keep moving. Do not stand still, do not watch."
The 42-year-old has experienced both ends of the spectrum in the biggest Game 7 of them all. His 2001 Avs Stanley Cup ring now resides at the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame in his hometown of Tampere, but that doesn’t keep him from thinking about the second one he never got.
"Winning and losing," said Nieminen. "It’s part of the story."